Isaiah Johnson-Mack is having a head turning camp while showing maturity beyond his years. In an exclusive interview with CF.C, we got to know the first-year freshman wide receiver who is fitting in comfortably at Washington State.
Not long ago Johnson-Mack was going through the recruiting process. He was one of the top prospects coming out of the state of Florida and considered by many to be the gem of Mike Leach’s 2016 class. The chance to play in the Air Raid offense had the one-time Florida commit spurning offers from a number of Power 5 schools in the southeast. After careful deliberation, WSU was his clear cut choice.
“It was Mike Leach and what he’s accomplished in his career," explained Johnson-Mack about his decision. "The offense. Then when I came on my visit I just liked it out here. Everyone accepted me.”
Taking the lead on recruiting Johnson-Mack was former receivers coach Dave Yost. Now that Yost has moved to Eugene as the Ducks quarterback coach, that situation begged the question if he will be looking forward to the game on October 1st in Pullman. Johnson-Mack chuckled, “Yep.”
Coach Dave Nichol is Johnson-Mack’s primary receiver coach. Having been a part of staffs that have led teams to 10 post-season bowl appearances, Johnson-Mack has a lot of respect for Nichol. Both coach and player share the fact that this is their first year at Washington State and are growing into the Cougar family.
“He’s a good coach. He always brings up scenarios of how guys do things, guys who are in the NFL now. He says this is the best campus he’s been on. This is the best coaching staff he’s been on. That helps (me) appreciate all of that and be humble.”
When asked what Nichol is like away from practice, Johnson-Mack didn’t hesitate to respond.
“He’s a pretty funny guy. He (works) you pretty hard but then he’s a pretty fun guy when you get to know him. He saves the (humor) for after practice. He’ll make jokes in the meeting room.”
Many incoming freshmen bring along a habit of coasting through a play or a drill when their attention wanders. Johnson-Mack is able to do what is easier said than done. He's quickly adjusting to the differences between high school football and Pac-12 level play.
“In high school, if I would drop a pass it would get in my head and then I’d probably be out of it for a couple of plays. Now I’ve got to focus on just playing football and not worry about it.”
“The guys (here) are a lot faster and stronger. You’ve got to do a lot more to get open to get the ball. It was easier in high school. You have to work harder in college.”
To run the Air Raid offense, head coach Leach typically uses an 8-man rotation loaded with guys who run precise routes and have a knack for finding open spaces in opponent's defensive schemes. Johnson-Mack wanted to get a jump on other first-year players by enrolling early and arriving with his sleeves rolled up ready to go to work.
“Working hard all the time,” describes Johnson-Mack about what he’s doing to earn a place on the field in games this fall. “Running hard in practice and practicing hard no matter what it is. Focus on getting better (while) not getting too high on the highs and too low on the lows.”
“When I make a good play not get (too up) and not worry about it. If I make a bad play or a good play to not get too high on emotions, just play football. That’s probably the hardest part.”
There are just a few sessions left in fall camp for WSU. Johnson-Mack has used the time to focus on: staying in shape; running good routes and learning the whole playbook. He'll use the practices left to continue getting into the best shape of his life in preparation for the grind of the upcoming season. Conditioning drills have built up the stamina needed to be ready for every play and opportunity.
Leach’s Air Raid offense is built on each guy doing their job precisely more than on complexity. The Cougs move the ball efficiently only when their execution is spot on, something that comes with repetition. No question that process begins with a fundamental understanding of the playbook.
“If you don’t run good routes, you’re probably not going to be open.” His progress in this area points to why WSU quarterbacks have targeted him repeatedly in both skelly and team sessions.
“I understand how my route effects other routes and how other routes affect my route.”
His coaches are tutoring Johnson-Mack both on the field and off the field so when he gets the chance to take a rep he’s able to make the best of the opportunity. Being mentally prepared is as important as physical preparation.
“In my mindset, (if) he’s going to (get) me the ball, am I going to work hard every day? Am I going to bring it every day? Am I going to run hard every route? Focus on things like that. They (teach) me to worry about the next play.” Johnson-Mack is learning that dwelling on just went well or just went bad on the previous play interrupts his ability to get into the flow of the game.
Johnson-Mack has to be familiar with the receiving routes for all four positions, X, Y, Z and H, if he wants to earn a place in the 8-man rotation. He’s settling in to the outside slots, X and Z because of the combination of his 6-3 frame and blazing speed coupled with excellent leaping ability. CF.C’s Skyler Cracraft projects Johnson-Mack to see most of his reps at Z, behind one of the best wideouts in college football, Gabe Marks.
If sent in to play on the opposite side, the X slot, Johnson-Mack easily broke down the difference in routes.
“The Z is on the right side of the field and the X is on the left side of the field. All the plays are reversed, just depending on what side you’re on.” Reversing a route sounds simple enough but every WR has to be so comfortable with the route schemes that their reactions are second nature and adjust to coverage to find open space.
Now that Johnson-Mack calls the Palouse home, he squeezes in time to enjoy some of his favorite hobbies, fishing and hunting. Often his fishing trips to the Snake River in Idaho include fellow teammates WR Tavares Martin and LB Paris Taylor.
“Anything outdoors, I like to do it. I’ve gone fishing down on the Snake. We caught some trout when we went last time.”
“The city I come from, (Belle Glade, Florida) is just like Pullman. The city is all about football. (It’s) surrounded by sugarcane fields instead of wheat fields. It’s a tight knit community and everybody just loves football so it’s been easy to be here. And my mom knows I’m not going to get in any trouble out here. She likes it and I like it, too.”