Johnson rises above defenses in freshman campaign

Michael Shapiro

Collin Johnson is nothing short of a matchup nightmare. 

Standing at 6-foot-6 inches, the freshman wide receiver has displayed an impressive ability to rise above opposing cornerbacks along with an elusiveness to avoid them. And nine games into his freshman campaign, Johnson is now matching his physical gifts with the mental savvy of a veteran. 

“[Johnson] is a kid that embraces work,” offensive coordinator Sterlin Gilbert said. “He embraces getting better and wanting to be a great player and all of the little things… He now feels a lot more comfortable and confident in himself.”

Johnson was the star of Texas’ offense in Saturday’s 24–20 loss to West Virginia, totaling seven catches and a touchdown. His performance came off the heels of a two-touchdown effort in Lubbock the week before, another day in which seemingly no defender could slow him down.

The San Jose, California, product could have had a second touchdown against the Mountaineers on a fade route in the back of the endzone in the first quarter. While the play didn’t show up in the scorebook, it might have been Johnson’s most impressive move of the day. 

Starting outside the right hash mark, Johnson faked inside and veered out, skying over the West Virginia defender when the ball was thrown. He sat nearly a half foot above the opposing cornerback, ready to snatch it out of the air. The ball ultimately landed on the ground for an incompletion as freshman quarterback Shane Buechele underthrew him. But the play still illustrated Johnson’s immense athletic gifts.

“You know, Collin has just outstanding size and speed,” head coach Charlie Strong said. “He can catch the ball, made a guy miss and goes in for the score. You can just tell – you can see his progression just week by week, and the more he played, the better he got.”

Johnson didn’t make an immediate impact upon arriving on the 40 Acres. He caught just four passes through his first four games, compiling just 22 yards. With a deep wide-receivers group featuring five upperclassmen contributors, it looked as though Johnson would have to spend most of his freshman year on the sideline. 

“The receiving room has so much talent, it’s like we don’t lose a step,” Johnson said. “It’s just a matter of just waiting.”

But inconsistent play from Texas’ receiving corps opened up a chance for Johnson to see the field. Despite the Longhorns’ depth at the position, the burnt orange lack a standout wide receiver. 

There is no dominant receiver monopolizing receptions in Gilbert’s offense — Texas’ most highly-recruited receiver is freshman Devin Duvernay. With no go-to guy, Buechele has often noted on the necessity of having a balanced attack.

“We have a lot of guys who can make plays in this offense,” Buechele said in September. “We just need to take advantage of the matchups we like and try to execute.”

Johnson’s touches within the Longhorn attack should increase next year after an offseason of building chemistry with Buechele. And paired with his impressive athletic gifts, Longhorn fans should expect to see Johnson in the endzone much more in the years to come.

“I knew my time would come,” Johnson said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to get three touchdowns the last two weeks, and I just try to build off that personally and just keep getting better.”