Steve Robertson -

Former Hoover High (AL) star shares his thoughts on this weekend's match-up with Auburn.

Sophomore Justin Johnson entered the 2016 season as the 'old man' in the tight ends room. A contributor as a true freshman, the Mississippi State tight end was thrust into a leadership role despite his status as an underclassman. With four games in the books, Johnson is seeing his peers get up to SEC speed.

The Bulldogs are 2-2 overall and 1-1 in league play. This weekend's home game against Auburn is big for Mississippi State's bowl prospects, but for Justin Johnson it means a little more. While the talented pass catcher is trying to approach the game just like any other game, as an Alabama native it means a little more. Saturday's SEC West tilt will pit Johnson against both friends and former teammates. 

"It's always a big game when you're playing a school from back home," Johnson said. "I am just trying to take it as a normal week and not trying to make it bigger than it really is. It's still a good experience. 

"Last year, it was a lot of fun, because I got to see a lot of people that I knew. It was good to go back home and have the chance to play against and in front of some of my peers."

While Johnson has several friends who attend Auburn, he has a few closer than others. Tiger linebacker Darrell Williams played alongside Johnson at Hoover High School. The former Buccaneer players have shared some friendly jabs privately already this week.

"Darrell is my closest friend over there," Johnson shared. "We went to school together and we played together. We talked this morning. He sent me a picture of him watching film on Snapchat. I told him I hope he's ready. It's always cool though. I know a lot of people over there and we all want the best for each other."

In the battle for bragging rights, Johnson currently holds a 1-0 lead over Williams thanks to Mississippi State's 17-9 win at Auburn last fall. The talented tight end reports that he enjoyed having some peace and quiet once that game was decided a season ago.

"It's kind of cool being able to play a team from back home now that I am at a school in Mississippi," Johnson said. "I know from church all of the time I get that 'We support you, but this week it's a little different'. It's always good to go back home when you have some bragging rights. It was pretty cool. I didn't hear a lot about all of that afterwards, but before I heard a little bit. It wasn't too bad. It's all cool."

The Bulldogs' win over Auburn was big last fall. Heading into this weekend, the stakes are high once again. Johnson reports that the Tigers are certainly improved from a season ago and that he expects Auburn to bring it's best effort to Davis Wade Stadium on Saturday.

"They play fast. They really play fast," Johnson said of the Tigers. "Talking with some of the guys on the defensive side, it looks like they are really running the ball well. It's a challenge for sure. We have a big week ahead of us, so we need a big week of practice."

Auburn enjoyed a blow out win over Louisiana-Monroe last weekend, while Mississippi State had the weekend off. Johnson reports that the Bulldogs returned to the practice field ready to go and with a strong sense of focus on the season ahead.

"It's time to get back into SEC play. It's big boy ball now," Johnson said. "Everything has to be sound and everything has to be great all the way into Saturday when we play. Practice has been good. You would think coming off of a bye week that we would be a little sluggish, but that hasn't been the case. Everybody came out fast and enthusiastic. It was a good day today for sure."

In addition to doing some advance scouting of Auburn, Johnson reports that he spent the bye week resting up and preparing himself mentally and physically for the remaining eight regular season games on the 2016 schedule.

"During the bye week, I made sure that I recovered well." Johnson said. "I spent a lot of time in the training room to make sure that my body is ready for this long haul of the season. I didn't slow down any, but I concentrated a lot more on my body and my recovery."

While Johnson remains the most experienced scholarship tight end on the Bulldog roster, the talented second year player has seen his reinforcements grow by leaps and bounds in recent weeks. Both Farrod Green and Jordan Thomas have secured their first scoring strikes in the Maroon and White over the course of the last three games.

Johnson reports, with a grin on his face, that the tight end room is beginning to become a contributing force to the Bulldog offensive efforts.

"It's exciting," Johnson shared. "I was in that position last year, so seeing them go through the same things I went through last year and to have success is exciting. It's great to see that coming from our room. We are around each other 24/7, so it's exciting to see those guys come through like that."

In addition to making some big time catches for the Bulldogs, the Mississippi State tight ends have paved the way for some of their peers to find the pay dirt. While there is no statistical category for some of those plays, Johnson reports that Coach Scott Sallach's personnel group understands the team game concept.

"A lot of those things are overlooked, but someone sees it," Johnson said. "It doesn't get completely overlooked, because your team sees it. That's all that really matters when we're playing football. We're all starting to grow a lot more as far as knowledge goes. We are working on being play makers and we have come a long way from camp until now."

The Bulldogs will tee it up this Saturday at 11 A.M. State has won two in a row from Auburn and three of the last four. Johnson and the rest of the Bulldogs will work hard to extend that modest streak by one as they seek to win their third game of the season and take another step towards bowl eligibility. 

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