Diontae Johnson hauls in a touchdown pass against Eastern Michigan as a freshman in 2015. After an injury last season, the receiver hopes for a breakout season with the Rockets in 2017. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Never mind that University of Toledo wide receiver Diontae Johnson is a redshirt sophomore or that he missed the whole 2016 season with a foot injury or that he has limited game experience. His coaches and teammates expect him to produce like a fifth-year senior on the field this season.
“I think the thing about him is that you see a veteran who hasn’t played,” first-year UT wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy said.
“I don’t know if that makes sense, but he is somebody who is hungry, he’s passionate about his craft, he’s coachable, and he’s been ready. You just get excited and you try to contain it, because he is ready for his opportunity. The opportunity is now.”
Last offseason, Johnson was running a simple out route when he planted and felt a sharp pain in his foot. He tried to brush it off and practice through it, but as the week went on the pain only got worse.
“I went and told the trainers about it,” Johnson said.
“They told me I broke my foot, the fifth metatarsal on the outside of the foot. I had to get a screw in it.”
Coming off a promising true freshman season with 14 catches for 237 yards and three touchdowns, Johnson’s sophomore season was derailed with the injury. He admits it was difficult to sit out and not be on the field with his teammates.
“It was tough because I couldn’t be with my brothers and practice, so I just missed it,” Johnson said. “But I had a lot of growing up to do during that time. I really needed to learn the playbook better and get bigger and stronger for next season. It was all right, I just matured through it.”
Johnson credits UT strength and conditioning coach Brad Bichey with helping him to mature physically during his year off.
“Coach Brad has us doing whatever it takes to get stronger,” Johnson said. “He helped me out a lot during that period of time when I didn’t play last year. He really stayed on me and pushed me and made me work hard.”
Bellamy said the first thing about Johnson that stands out as a receiver is his pure speed, but he is working with him to perfect his route running and his deception on certain routes.
“He is fast,” Bellamy said. “His speed is something you can’t coach. A lot of times, he is falling down because he is trying to run too fast. I keep telling him it’s not how fast you are, it’s the perception of how fast you are. So use it at the right times. He’s learned how to manipulate the defender. He’s put himself in a position to where everything he does has become an art. He’s an artist at his position and that makes him exciting to coach.”
Johnson showed off some of his speed in the kickoff return game as a freshman. He averaged 22.8 yards per return.
Despite being behind all-conference receivers in senior Cody Thompson and junior Jon’Vea Johnson on the depth chart, Bellamy said the coaches are looking to do anything they can to get Johnson the ball in space.
“He’s dynamic with the ball,” Bellamy said. “Coach [Jason] Candle, in this offense, he gets the guys who are dynamic with the ball the ball. However we can get it to him whether it is kick returns, punt returns, reverses, jet sweeps, throwing him hitches; he’s one of the guys that will probably have some of the most touches on the team this year. It’s not going to be by accident.”
Johnson has learned from witnessing the work ethic of Thompson and Jon’Vea Johnson and hopes some of that rubs off onto his own game.
“They work hard and they are always in the playbook,” Johnson said. “During my time off I was just really trying to learn from them and get more information so I could apply that to my game.”
“He was roommates with Cody,” Bellamy added. “Cody is a football maniac who wants to know everything, so he’s able to watch how Cody studies. He is able to watch how Jon’Vea runs. He is one of those guys that is just waiting for his turn.”
Bellamy knows he has a deep receiver group, but he believes he has an X-factor in Johnson.
“I can put him at any position,” Bellamy said. “He understands the plays. He’s what I call a rep guy. He gets it one time and it sticks. If he messes up once, he’ll get it the next time and you never have to worry about it again. He’s not a guy who has to sit there and study the playbook. He’s a guy who gets in reps and he is going to understand it. Every time he sees something new, he comes back and he wants to be coached.”
After playing behind Alonzo Russell as a freshman, Johnson’s injury forced him to wait his turn for his moment. All early signs point to that time being now.
“It’s a big year for me,” Johnson said. “I feel like I have a lot on my plate. I’m ready to do what I can to help the team out and get to the MAC championship and do my job and do what I can.”
UT wide receiver Diontae Johnson catches a pass while defended by cornerback Justin Clark at a spring practice in February. BLADE/JETTA FRASER
Johnson UNIVERSITY OF TOLEDO