CHICAGO — With two simple words in one tweet in January, Minnesota wideout Tyler Johnson made a lot of people happy.
The Gophers’ best receiver in many years opted to return to Minneapolis, giving his ascending program a major boost and himself a chance to break some long-held school records. But don’t look at this as a victory lap for Johnson. He’s not expected to be treated any differently than he has while turning himself from a gifted athlete into one of college football’s most productive and dangerous receivers.
“I said to myself, if I come back I have to do it [for] the right reasons,” Johnson told Yahoo Sports last week at Big Ten Media Days. “I have to be prepared to do whatever it takes to get better. Not just rest on my laurels.”
Johnson polled everyone about whether to come out for the 2019 NFL draft: coaches and teammates, his Little League and high school coaches and, naturally, his family. There was only one choice in his mind, tough as it was.
“It came down to a lot of things I needed to get better at,” Johnson said. “There’s nothing I am top level at. It’s pretty much everything I need to work on route running, catching, speed ...”
That last skill is probably the biggest knock on Johnson. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound receiver has transformed from a high school quarterback into a receiver who is 100 catches shy of Eric Decker’s school mark for receptions; 1,1,32 yards behind Decker’s receiving record; and 11 receiving touchdowns behind Ron Johnson’s 31 career TDs.
If those feel like unapproachable marks to hit during Johnson’s senior campaign — on a team that hasn’t settled on a starting quarterback yet — consider that he hauled in 78 passes for 1,169 yards (about a 15-yard average) and 12 scores in a breakout 2018 season.
“And he probably will be the first to tell you he had five or six drops that he should have had,” Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca told Yahoo Sports.
Beyond those drops, the most concerning element of Johnson’s game from the perspective of NFL scouts might be his speed.
“I don’t know if we ever thought he was going to run some crazy 40-yard dash,” Ciarrocca said.
Johnson’s game is polished in other ways. His tape reveals a player who has thrived from the outside and in the slot. He dices up man coverage with slick, precise routes (especially slants) and gains separation quickly and with ease. Johnson also displays great body control and the ability to high-point to haul in 50-50 balls. And after the catch, Johnson can do damage — even while lacking that elite gear.
“That’s the guy that I like watching run routes,” Johnson said last week. “He’s very explosive running routes. He can get off the line quick and he can attack the ball.”
The 2020 NFL draft class at wide receiver could be one for the ages. Along with Alabama’s junior trio of Jerry Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and Jaylen Waddle, the group of potential high-round prospects could include Colorado’s Laviska Shenault Jr., Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, Clemson’s Tee Higgins, Texas’ Collin Johnson and TCU’s Jalen Reagor.
The difference separating them could be thin. Every metric and number will be parsed to separate which ones land in Round 1. But Minnesota WR coach Matt Simon — one of Johnson’s most trusted advisers at the school — isn’t worried about Johnson’s testing speed.
“Ty might never run a 4.3 or a 4.4 [40-yard dash],” Simon told Yahoo Sports. “But whatever [speed] he is, he plays to that. He’s one of the best I’ve been around who can not only play full speed — not just vertically but also side to side. He might not run through people like [former Western Michigan receiver] Corey [Davis], but Tyler has the ability to make you miss and elude you.”
How Tyler Johnson has developed into a top NFL draft prospect
When Johnson committed to former Gophers coach Tracy Claeys, he was listed as an athlete. Johnson played quarterback and safety in high school and was best known for his incredible basketball career, leading a Minneapolis North program that was on the verge of shuttering to a state title.
The former staff saw his potential at receiver and moved him there during a development season for him. The Gophers went 9-4 in 2016, capped by a surprise 17-12 win over Washington State in the Holiday Bowl. But Claeys and his staff were let go at season’s end amid questions following sexual assault allegations involving 10 players during the season. Claeys’ support for his players ultimately cost him his job.
When P.J. Fleck arrived from Western Michigan, he brought a big chunk of his staff with him to ease the transition. The coaches weren’t exactly sure how to size up Johnson as a prospect. They helped develop Corey Davis and Daniel Braverman into NFL prospects at Western Michigan and were fascinated by Johnson’s traits but unsure whether he’d put it all together.
“Our first impressions, really, were more about his ability and raw athleticism,” Simon said. “It was that basketball ability. You could tell he was young. He hadn’t really dedicated himself to the weight room. He certainly wasn’t the biggest, strongest or fastest guy. But that raw, natural ability shined through.”
There was also his confidence to wonder about. Johnson was quiet and reserved. He admitted that the coaching change affected him and made him wonder if he wanted to stick around during a rebuild — and be a leader of that process.
“The whole process was tough,” he said. “It was kind of tough building a relationship with [Fleck] for a little while, anyway. But once we got rolling, I believed him.”
Added Ciarracca, “At first, Tyler had to worry about Tyler. It was just part of that maturation. Realizing those [other receivers] all looked up to him.”
As a sophomore, Johnson took a step forward after a 14-catch, 141-yard freshman campaign. In 2017, he grabbed 35 passes for 677 yards (a 19.3-yard average) and seven TDs — on a team that completed only 110 passes and nine receiving TDs all season.
But it wasn’t until last spring when Ciarracca and Simon noticed a major change. Midway through spring practices, they started seeing Johnson take over like he hadn’t before.
“The year before he was one of those guys where he had some great moments, but he wasn’t a great player yet,” Ciarrocca said. “You saw the flashes, but he wasn’t complete yet.
“That second year in the system, that’s when Matt and I said to each other, ‘OK, he’s very good now.’ That’s when we said, ‘He’s a guy now.’”
Added Simon: “You could really tell that things were slowing down for him. When we first got there, he wasn’t just learning the offense. He was also learning how to become a receiver. Once he had that second spring with us, you could tell that he wasn’t processing X’s and O’s and receiver play — he was just going out, reacting and playing.”
It showed right away. Johnson turned in a 100-yard, two-TD game against New Mexico State in the opener and followed it up two weeks later with a 133-yard, three-TD game against Miami (Ohio).
That was followed by a four-week stretch where Johnson hit the 100-yard mark in each game — including an eight-catch, 119-yard performance at Ohio State, a team littered with NFL-caliber defensive backs, that put Johnson on the national radar. He tied a school record for 100-yard receiving games in a season with six and became the first Gopher to post four straight 100-yard conference games.
One of the big reasons for the improvement, Ciarrocca said, was refining his technique to compensate for a lack of blazing speed and become a precision route runner.
“[Johnson] naturally plays on his insteps,” he said. “He’s more explosive out of his break point because of it. When you can play on your insteps and bring your hips with you, that’s when you get that explosion.”
Johnson finished last season with less production down the stretch, but he caught two TDs in the bowl win over Georgia Tech. And just as important, he helped mentor a young Gophers WR room — a leadership role he wasn’t entirely comfortable with at first — that helped make it one of the more improved position groups in the country.
Freshman Rashod Bateman stepped up in a complementary role, and sophomore Chris Autman-Bell became a weekly contributor. Fleck and Simon tasked Johnson with taking a leadership role with the young group. Johnson admitted balking at the idea at first before trying to exert more of his personality and voice into the room.
“When we first got there, he was slow to trust you,” Ciarrocca said. “I remember being a little concerned about whether we could bring him out of his shell.
“But … that’s not a problem now.”
A top WR with some attitude: ‘I go out and do it’
Ciarrocca and Simon both agree that he’s a very intelligent football player. Last season, Simon would throw out a question to his young WR room — about technique, coverage, opponents’ tendencies, you name it — and occasionally there would be silence. Simon also knew that Johnson almost always knew the answer and eventually would say it, but that he was first allowing his younger teammates the chance to show they knew it, too.
“He’s not a huge note taker, but he processes really, really well in his own way,” Simon said.
In his two-word statement to announce his return to the program this winter, Johnson opened a window to his personality. He’s quiet. Unassuming. As much of an anti-diva as you might find in a wide receiver these days.
“I am pretty laid back,” Johnson said at the Big Ten Media Days podium with just a few media members talking to the All-America candidate. Seeking the spotlight hasn’t been his m.o. to this point, and it might never be his main thrust.
“I like to take everything in,” he said. “I like to listen. After I listen and learn, I go out and do it.”
And doing it, Ciarroca said, means witnessing a personality change.
“When you put him in a competitive situation, you see a lot more personality,” he said. “He’ll talk a little trash, that type of stuff. He’s humble, but he’s confident.”
Simon said what makes Johnson different is that he’s “extremely competitive but without really losing his cool. He’s very much under control of himself most of the time. He’s one of the best I have ever coached in terms of taking something from the practice field or the film room and being able to apply it full speed in games.”
In that way, Fleck sees similarities to another receiver he coached.
“Maybe not as big, but [Johnson’s] game is similar,” Fleck said. “[Mohamed Sanu] was never going to light up the stopwatch. But his body control was impressive. Ball skills were off the charts.
“And that’s what Tyler has. He is a wonderful route runner. He’s an attention-to-detail young man. He’s not a young man who has it all figured out. He’s willing to break every barrier that’s in his way every single day.”
Sanu has had a nice NFL career, first with the Cincinnati Bengals and now with the Atlanta Falcons, whom Fleck calls one of the “best third-down receivers in the league.” Davis remains on an upward trajectory entering Year 3 with the Tennessee Titans.
Johnson can match or surpass their NFL production, Ciarrocca says, if he continues to make as big of strides in his final college season as he did between Johnson’s sophomore and junior seasons.
“Let’s develop that work ethic that’s going to carry you through in the NFL,” the offensive coordinator said of Johnson. “Sanu’s work ethic — he has talent, but who is getting more out of their talent than Mo?”
Ciarrocca also points to “consistency in catching the football” and “concentration drops” as clear areas of improvement. “He’s got to eliminate those from his game,” he said. The Gophers are big proponents of using Jugs machines in drills to help their receivers at different angles and distances, and constantly changing things up on them to keep them on their toes.
“We started with a few types of those,” Fleck said. “But now there are 500 possible drills we do. Players are doing 15 to 20 a day, and it’s never the same.”
That’s Johnson’s individual mission this season: fine-tuning those details. He said he has set no individual statistical goals this season, sidestepping those questions about the school receiving marks, and he knows he won’t be winning any track meets against college football’s elites sprinters. There’s also a QB battle between Gophers sophomores Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan that could affect his production, as well as the extra attention from defenses that comes from being one of the leading returning receivers in college football.
But cleaning up the little things could result in another huge season as he prepares for the next level, and Johnson believes he’s in good hands — with Fleck and Ciarrocca, surely, but especially with Simon, who has turned down other jobs, including in the NFL, to stay at Minnesota and continue overseeing Johnson’s development.
“Since the first day I met Coach Simon, he’s been a great coach for me,” Johnson said. “He finds the little things for me to work on and how I can lead other people as well. He’s always hard on me. He never takes it easy on me no matter what we’re doing or what’s going on.
“And I’ve got to thank him for that. He helped me become a better receiver. Whenever he shows me how I can become a better receiver, he helps me go out there and do it.”
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