Things could have been different for the Texas offense if it weren’t for a last minute change of heart from one of Texas’ star running back/wide receivers.
Sophomore Daje Johnson — nicknamed “Squirrel” by teammate and cornerback Quandre Diggs — who stunned fans with his speed and skill last Saturday night, had originally committed to Texas Christian University as a cornerback before deciding to enroll at UT.
“I jumped on TCU because it was my biggest school at the time,” Johnson said. “But I had always wanted to go to Texas so when they offered me a scholarship, I took it.”
Former offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin originally recruited Johnson. Harsin left Texas at the end of last season to take a head coaching position at Arkansas State, but new offensive coordinator Major Applewhite saw the potential in Johnson and put it on himself to make him a weapon on the offensive side of the ball.
“He’s just got a lot of [skill],” Applewhite said. “I couldn’t see him with anything other than the ball in his hand. I think it would be a shame. We needed to get him the ball.”
While the Pflugerville native had the talent, his work ethic and focus weren’t always there. He would often miss team meetings or show up late to practice as a freshman, but Johnson changed on and off the field as he grew older.
Despite playing 11 of 12 games last season, Johnson saw only limited time on special teams and as a reserve running back. Although he was able to put up some impressive numbers, including 7.5 yards per carry, his lack of focus cost him the opportunity to earn more playing time.
“That’s what I had to work on this summer,” Johnson said. “That’s all in the past now. I’m more focused and ready to play every play. When I play I just want to make my team better.”
When Johnson is able to concentrate, he can be explosive, something that makes him an integral part of Texas’ high-powered offense. His quickness and speed give the Longhorns the kind of versatility that can be hard to find.
“There aren’t [players like Johnson] all over the place,” Applewhite said. “They’re rare. They’re not a dime in a dozen. There just aren’t a lot of guys that have those hands and those feet and can also get in between the tackles.”
The sophomore continues to impress his teammates with each opportunity he gets. Johnson recorded 67 yards receiving, 62 yards on the ground and two touchdowns in the season opener against New Mexico State.
“He’s a great ball player,” junior quarterback David Ash said. “The maturity that he’s starting to reach, the attitude shift from last year to this year has been dramatic. The work he’s put in, it’s paying off. He’s very talented. I think he’s just going to keep working, keep getting better. I’m excited about what he brings.”
The biggest challenge for Johnson going forward will be to continue to improve his work ethic. Once things start to go well, it is natural to ease up.
“[We] can’t be satisfied,” Applewhite said. “Around here [that will] lionize you in a heartbeat. You have to fight it and get it away from you. We have to do that as coaches. We talk to our players each and every day: Find the best in you in everything you do.”