The allure of the NFL, and the money, were tempting. Tyler Johnson said he “absolutely” gave serious thought to leaving school early for the NFL draft after his record-breaking junior season.
Ultimately, the Gophers’ star receiver decided to stay after consulting with his parents and coaches. Being able to graduate heavily influenced his deliberations.
“The degree is something that’s very important,” he said.
Underclassmen had until Monday to declare for the draft. There was some uncertainty about whether or not Johnson would skip his senior season until he posted a picture of himself on Twitter with the caption “Last ride.”
He didn’t sound conflicted in explaining his decision during a quiet moment at the team’s complex Wednesday.
“I know that we’ve got something special going on here,” he said. “I’m very excited for what the team has to bring next season. I’m excited to get back to work.”
Johnson had one of the most productive seasons by a receiver in program history to earn first-team All-Big Ten honors. He set single-season school records for receiving yards (1,169) and touchdown catches (12) while posting the second-most catches (78). He became the first Gopher to have four consecutive 100-yard receiving performances in Big Ten play.
Johnson said he didn’t use the College Advisory Committee to get feedback from NFL talent evaluators on his draft status, but he feels confident he would have been drafted. The biggest question is his speed, but his production speaks for itself.
The NFL can wait, he said. He has more that he wants to accomplish in college.
“It gives me the opportunity to let people out there know that [his 2018 production] is not just a one-time thing,” he said.
Earning his degree, he said, was a main driving force behind his return. He’s on track to graduate after the fall semester with a degree in business and marketing education. Johnson, a graduate of Minneapolis North, said he hopes his degree sets an example for his four younger siblings and kids in north Minneapolis.
“It will help them to understand and realize that getting a degree is very important,” he said. “It means a lot to me knowing I’ve got a big impact on a lot of people.”
Johnson also served as a mentor to the freshmen receivers who gave the position an extreme makeover, from liability to team strength. That group should rank among the Big Ten’s best next season with Johnson’s return and a year of experience for Rashod Bateman, Chris Autman-Bell and Demetrius Douglas.
Nothing guarantees Johnson will duplicate his 2018 production, or avoid injuries that could impact his senior season and NFL future. There is some individual risk in staying, but he said he didn’t dwell on those things when making his decision.
“I don’t look at anything negative,” he said.
If he stays healthy, he has a chance to end his career holding every major receiving record in school history. A repeat of his junior season (or better) would secure his name alongside Eric Decker and Ron Johnson in different categories.
“My main goal isn’t to break records,” he said. “Everybody wants to be in the record books. I’m not going to say I don’t want to. But my main goal is to win, compete and build stronger relationships with my teammates.”
Fair or not, Johnson’s draft stock next spring likely will hinge on how fast he runs the 40-yard dash for pro scouts. He’s not known as a burner, so improving his speed will be an emphasis this offseason. He also wants to continue to refine his route-running and eliminate drops.
He made the right decision in returning to school. He has a chance to earn his degree, continue to help build the program, enjoy the spectacle of college football and cement his legacy as one of the best and most productive receivers in Gophers history.
“It makes me want to work even harder next season,” he said. “I want to set the standard for the wide receivers.”
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org