During captains’ practices this summer, Tyler Johnson relinquished his role as Gophers star receiver and took up a new position.
“He’s like the coach out there,” fellow receiver Phillip Howard said. “He’s like, ‘We need to do this on our releases, and this, and this, and then you should stem here, and do this, and ...’ Like, all right, Coach Tyler.”
“You might not want to be coached in that situation, but he’s going to give his input,” Howard said. “He’s not doing it in a bad way. He’s just giving his opinion — it’s never anything negative with Tyler.”
The Gophers are embracing that bossy streak, as the junior is undoubtedly the leader of this young group.
Only five of the 14 receivers have played a down for the Gophers, and Johnson is one of only three upperclassmen, all juniors.
So Johnson has two major responsibilities going into his third year: Put together a complete season as a Big Ten playmaker, while also nurturing the newcomers. It’s a lot to ask of the soon-to-be 20-year-old Minneapolis native but also a familiar role for the oldest of five children.
“He’s always been uplifting and encouraging, and he’s always had a positive attitude, but now we’re starting to deliver that and put that into other people,” receivers coach Matt Simon said. “He’s taking on a leadership role and the responsibility that comes with it in a very mature way. Before, whether he wanted it or not, he got it. And now, he’s starting to embrace that role — he’s starting to want that pressure.”
Prepped for success
In two seasons, Johnson has 49 catches for 818 yards and eight touchdowns. But his freshman year he only started one game, and he missed the last two games of his sophomore year with a broken left wrist.
But if his offseason is any indication — coach P.J. Fleck called it “one of the best of anyone” on the team — he might be primed for a breakout season. Johnson, at 6-2, 200 pounds, took a renewed interest in the weight room, hoping to improve his chances in one-on-one battles. He’s also understanding the nuances of his position better after playing exclusively quarterback on offense at Minneapolis North.
Simon said some of those small details are Johnson understanding his leverage on a defender and identifying coverages. The position coach said Johnson has always been capable of the basics — jumping and catching the ball, running the route — but he’s now becoming a smarter player. That’s also manifested in off-field work; Johnson comes in early to stretch and take care of his body.
A glimpse of payoff from that extra preparation came in April’s spring game, when Johnson made his self-described best catch, a one-handed grab that he still sees come across his screen at least five times a week. But the receiver isn’t trying too hard to recreate that moment. Johnson doesn’t have any personal goals beyond wanting team success and a memorable Gophers career.
“Just go out there and play. If it happens again, it happens again. But as long as I make the catch, then I guess that’s considered a great play. So it doesn’t have to be spectacular,” Johnson said. “But if it’s spectacular, then I’ll take it.”
Simon described Johnson as “quiet but confident.” His high school coach, Charles Adams, said Johnson is “soft-spoken” but can assume a commanding presence on the field.
His friends have a bit of a different description.
“He’s very outgoing,” said Howard, one of Johnson’s three football roommates in an apartment near campus. “He’ll introduce himself and then he might follow that up with quick conversation, and then you might end up dying laughing because he might say something funny or do something goofy. He’s a goofy dude.”
According to Howard, Johnson is likely spending his downtime playing the video game Fortnite or FaceTiming his little sisters. Johnson’s youngest sister is 2 years old. So that might explain some of that assertive leadership style on campus.
“I wouldn’t say they really have to ask me for advice. Any time that we’re out running routes or something like that, I would just tell them what they should get better at,” Johnson said. “They don’t really have to ask me for advice like that because I’m just going to give it to them regardless.”
But also much like an older brother, he insists on being a good example, even when that entails being made an example of. Simon recalled a winter conditioning session when Johnson jogged back to the line instead of running, a major no-no under Fleck. The coach called him out in front of the team, but instead of cowering or making excuses, Johnson just owned up to it and moved on with the practice.
“The only pressure that I would say is just doing the right thing so the people in my group can follow,” Johnson said. “If you’re going to be a leader, you’ve got to expect a lot on your shoulders. So it’s like, I come in every day knowing that I’m going to be getting yelled at and things like that, just so that they see how I respond to that, the coach yelling at me.
“So whenever it happens to them, they know that they can get through it, too.
“Just because I got through it.”