To the casual observer, the play seemed simple enough. Tyler Johnson sped off the line of scrimmage, made a hard cut to the middle of the field after about 20 yards, leaped to snare a pass from Conor Rhoda and raced past the Buffalo defense for a 61-yard touchdown reception.
But to P.J. Fleck, the sight of Johnson scoring the first touchdown of the coach’s Gophers career in the season opener meant much more than that. Fleck saw the ongoing growth of Johnson from the raw and talented freshman of 2016 who he inherited to a poised and focused playmaking sophomore of 2017.
“He loves being ‘The Guy’ and he wants to be ‘The Guy,’ ” Fleck said.
Johnson, a football and basketball star for Minneapolis North, was used to that role in high school. To gain such a status among Gophers receivers, however, he needed to pay attention to the little things. That all came together in that Aug. 31 opener, when he caught six passes for 141 yards, matching his yardage total for all of last year.
“You could see his details were getting better and better, and it was just a matter of time before he started to put it together,” offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said.
Though happy with his performance and excited about winning the opener, Johnson shrugged off his big night. “Nothing surprised me,” the 6-2, 190-pound sophomore said this week. “We put in the work day-in and day-out, so no surprises at all.”
That extra effort is what Johnson hopes will enable him to put together a strong, consistent season this fall. He started strong in 2016 with 10 receptions in his first four games before catching only four passes over the final nine games. But his work in spring practice and in training camp especially led to his emergence among a receiving corps that desperately needs someone to step forward.
“I noticed right away during the winter workouts that he was going to be a guy who would pay attention to details,” Ciarrocca said. “He was all-in about willing to pay the price on a daily basis in willing to get better.”
Johnson concurred: “I would say I have improved a lot. I have to give credit to our receivers coach, Coach [Matt] Simon. He is hard on me every day in practice, making sure I am doing everything at the highest level.”
All of that was apparent on his touchdown against Buffalo. Johnson stayed true to his route, used his athletic ability to catch the ball and separated himself from would-be tacklers to have the Gophers’ longest TD reception in 57 games.
Fleck, a former receiver at Northern Illinois and briefly with the San Francisco 49ers, appreciated the technical aspects of Johnson’s big play.
“When we first got Tyler, Tyler would drift in his routes. If he would have drifted in that route, he would have been tackled for a 16-yard gain,” Fleck said. “But he came back to the football … and pulled his back shoulder to the ball.
“Now all of a sudden, it’s an in-front-of-me catch instead of a side catch. So he came downhill, which created poor angles for the defense, and he could catch and run with it. That’s where he’s evolved.”
Johnson wasn’t done. He went on to develop a strong rapport with Rhoda, who hooked up with Johnson for gains of 17, 22, 14 and 19 yards on a promising drive that ended with an end zone interception. Though those were his last catches of the night after the Gophers went ultra-conservative in the second half, Johnson had made his impression.
“The kid comes to play when the lights are brightest,” Rhoda said.
That was the case at Minneapolis North, too, where Johnson led the Polars to the Prep Bowl as a quarterback in 2015 and to a Class 1A basketball title as a point guard later that school year. “I carry the North pride all the time,” Johnson said. “Everywhere I go, I know I have to represent my city and represent the community I come from.”
Hoops star stays grounded
Johnson’s basketball skills had Fleck jokingly warning his friend and neighbor, men’s basketball coach Richard Pitino, to look elsewhere for hoops help. “I keep seeing Coach Pitino at our practices,” Fleck said on his radio show. “Uh-oh. Coach Pitino, stay away. Just stay away from my guys.”
Still, Fleck knows Johnson is by no means a finished product. “He makes two more catches down the field [against Buffalo] if his details are correct,” the coach said.
Ciarrocca agreed, giving the example of receiver Corey Davis, who he coached the past three years at Western Michigan and who went on become the No. 5 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft: “Elite players are elite players every single day and every single game,” Ciarrocca said. “Corey Davis was elite every single game. … Tyler’s got the work ethic for it. Now he has to turn that into production on Saturdays.”
To do that, Johnson is staying grounded. “I just have to come in with a humble mind-set again,” he said. “Can’t let the last game impact our next game.’’