The Bulldogs are just over two weeks into fall camp. Classes began earlier this week, so the demands on the Mississippi State student athletes are on the rise. Justin Johnson reports that the football work down on the farm was fruitful.
"We are still building right now," Johnson said. "We are just trying to make sure that everything is going to be right when we get to that first game."
In the first game a season ago, Johnson caught a pass on his first college snap and then recorded a touchdown during his first turn in Coach Scott Sallach's rotation. While success came early on for the former Hoover Buccaneer, Johnson still had a lot to learn.
"I learned how to compete in the SEC," Johnson said. "I learned how to be a player, how to be a student of the game. Being behind Gus (Walley) and Hutch (Darrion Hutcherson), I just kinda seen how they went throughout the week and how they prepared going into big games and just preparing themselves for what is about to happen.
"I think it's harder trying to learn. I had help last year, so it wasn't as hard for me to grasp the idea. Coming in trying to learn at the pace we're going, trying to learn fast is difficult. I remember coming in going straight from receiver to tight end. It was difficult. I know it was pretty tough."
A season ago, Johnson was learning formations, terminology and a new way to do things. This fall, Johnson is the player explaining to a handful of newcomers how the Bulldogs operate. To say that Johnson has had to be a quick study is putting it mildly.
"At the beginning of the summer it was kind of tough," Johnson said. "With me knowing so little and having to do so much, but I have grown into it. I am getting better at trying to take a leadership role and lead guys to know what it's like to play in the SEC."
In addition to showing the new charges the ropes, Johnson has worked hard during the off season to fine tune his own craft. Now bigger and stronger, Johnson is prepared to make a bigger contribution to the Mississippi State offense.
"I have made a lot of progress," Johnson said. "I have tried to put on a little more weight, so I can be more comfortable. I know I can be in the inside and that I can hold my own. I know that I can handle my assignment and help the team win. Over the summer, I was a tight end. Last year, I was a receiver. Now being a true tight end, it has helped me learn more. Being in the film room has helped me grow as a player."
In an effort to show the current tight ends the standard they have to practice and play up to, Sallach rolled out some 2014 video of Brandon Hill and Malcolm Johnson who helped lead the Bulldogs to a #1 national ranking. The film review appears to have made an impression on the personable Johnson.
"Those guys were some real ballers," Johnson said with a smile. "We needed to see that to see where we need to be going into these games. We got to see how they attacked it everyday and how they attacked every game and every play. If we need to refer to something, we can go back and look at that.
"Coaches preach relentless effort. Once you learn how to do that, you can be unstoppable. Going throughout the week, every rep you're not thinking, you're just going. You are so comfortable that not only do you know everything you're doing, you can just go."
While many players can run out into the pass pattern and grab a pass, tight ends have to catch passes and sometimes serve as an extra tackle of sorts in pass protection and blocking. Johnson reports that putting your hands on a player and moving him can be a real challenge.
"Downhill blocking is probably the toughest thing," Johnson explained. "Coming from a receiver standpoint, that's not really hard for me to be able to take that and just go with it. Having to learn the inside and all of the rules and everything you have to get done it's different. It's something to learn."
The three newcomers to the depth chart at tight end will have to acclimate to SEC intensity rather quickly. The Bulldogs host South Alabama on September 3rd in an 11 A.M. kickoff. Mississippi State will open conference play the next week when South Carolina pays a visit.