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True Soph is State’s Lone Experienced Tight End for 2016 Preseason

Well, his coach wants leaders in every unit. If the burden just happens to fall on a true sophomore, Justin Johnson is willing to accept responsibility. Because, after all, he is the only Mississippi State tight end who has played in a real college game.

“Yeah, and that being my edge to the other guys I want to kind of encourage and help them grow as we go throughout the fall.”

Johnson can speak about growth without any sense of sophomore irony. That’s the advantage being the lone veteran in the tight end meeting room. It’s an increasingly crowded room, too, with five healthy tight ends and another redshirting already with injury.

But only Johnson has stepped between the lines for-real. That makes the 19-year-old the elder statesman of his position.

“I’m getting pretty comfortable with it,” Johnson said. Comfortable enough to be one of the youngest ‘mentors’ on the entire team already.

“All summer we’ve been working on small things, just starting over. I’m really just helping coach, bring other guys with me being the #1 tight end.”

This after spending his rookie season as #3. Though it’s a trivia twist that Mississippi State’s first offensive touchdown of 2015 was on a Dak Prescott pass to…Justin Johnson. The Birmingham native was activated immediately due to health questions and limited numbers in the tight end corps.

The rest of the season wasn’t much on highlights as Johnson totaled five catches for 41 yards. Gus Walley and Darrion Hutcherson were the leaders, at least until Walley was lost with injury again and ultimately for good. Hutcherson blossomed in the second half of the schedule himself. So Johnson settled for backup action when it came.

Still by any measure it was so much more than was anticipated for a true freshman at his position. “Playing last year was big. It was big for me. And being behind Gus and Hutch and kind of paying attention to see how they go about practice, how they go throughout the week. It was big for me to learn and capitalize and bring that into this year being the #1 guy.”

The #2? Based on his year redshirting that’d be recruiting classmate Farrod Green. The activation nod went to Johnson because Green qualified later and took a little longer to transition from receiver to tight end. Other than that the qualifications were close enough to even.

In fact, “Yeah, they call me and Farrod twins,” Johnson said. “We’re roommates, so…he’s like a brother to me.” They are just about equal physically as well; same 6-3 height and Johnson packing a few more pounds.

Oh, and both can run. That is their calling-cards in Coach Billy Gonzales’ multiple-receiver sets.

“We’re the more speedy guys and flex-out on a whole lot,” Johnson said. “Coach talks about a lot more two-tight ends so we’ll see how we go into that as the fall goes on. But right now we’re just trying to get everybody on the same page and grow together.”

Johnson and Green do offer some speed-matchup potential working out of their slot(s). Which ought be amplified if they are paired with the real burners like Ross, Gray, Dear, etc. and so on.

“Yeah, that’s some sped guys,” Johnson agrees. “When you get them involved it’s a different game. They can get in and out of breaks and get vertical faster than I can. I’ll be more like in the flats than they would.”

At the same time tight ends have to block, either for paired receivers or more routinely in the run game. This is something Johnson worked on during summer, both in technique drills as well as the weightroom. He said he’s now 242, over the listed size.

“I added just a little bit of muscle to help me inside a little bit.” But that doesn’t compare to a peer at the position. There are big tight ends, and there is Jordan Thomas.

“Yeah, that’s a big guy! And I just found out he’s 290! It don’t look like 290! But he’s doing good, he’s progressing. We have a pretty long way to go but he’s going in the right direction.” And that’s not just because when 290 pounds get going one direction it’s hard to change.

Thomas, can run. Really run. The physical package of this juco transfer is fascinating. Yet there’s more than muscle and movement required, as Johnson can explain very well now to the new guy.

“Being in the SEC is a lot more demanding. Before the first day I was like bro, I’m telling you, it’s going to go a lot faster than you think. And it got him! He was down a little bit.” Thomas recovered soon enough, fortunately.

Thursday, the Bulldogs pulled on full pads and got to making contact if not true tackling. Not yet. That’s coming up soon along with more run game priority on offense. So, Coach Johnson starts teaching some of his ‘old’ Dog tricks.

“We’ll see the new install and where we go from there.”

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