When Tyler Johnson joined the Gophers as a standout athlete from Minneapolis North last year, he seemed to be most remembered for leaping over helpless defenders in Minnesota’s smallest basketball class for dunks that went viral on social media.
Now fans likely will be talking about the talented sophomore’s first half against Buffalo in Thursday night’s 17-7 Gophers win.
Johnson had all of his six catches for 141 yards in the first half, including a 61-yard touchdown in the first quarter. It was the most receiving yards for a Gopher since Da’Jon McKnight’s 173 vs. Michigan State in 2011.
Coach P.J. Fleck was waiting for a receiver to emerge as a go-to guy during fall camp, and he might have found that with Johnson.
“I’m sure Tyler got thrown more balls than he’s ever seen in his entire life during the game,” Fleck said. “And it’s only going to be more. We need him to rise up and he’s only a sophomore.”
The 6-2, 190-pound Johnson was shut out in the second half, but he still tied his receiving yards from all of last season, when he was making a transition from a high school quarterback.
“I would say I’ve improved a lot,” Johnson said. “Got to give credit to my wide receiver coach, Coach [Matt] Simon. He’s hard on my every day in practice, making sure I’m doing everything at the highest level it can be.”
Both Gophers quarterbacks targeted Johnson regularly Thursday, but most of his success came on passes from starter Conor Rhoda.
“He’s not the fastest guy in the world; he’s not the tallest guy in the world,” Rhoda said. “But he can jump about a hundred feet in the air, it seems like.”
There were zero targeting flags Thursday, a big change from the Gophers’ season opener last season against Oregon State when linebackers Cody Poock and Jonathan Celestin and defensive end Tai’yon Devers were ejected.
The Gophers would go on to have eight players ejected for targeting during the season. Safety Duke McGhee had three of those ejections, the last coming in the fourth quarter of the Texas Bowl, so he had to sit out the first half of Thursday’s opener against Buffalo.
Fleck and his staff have used pre-practice sessions to stress proper hitting technique to avoid such penalties.
• Gophers true freshman wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell (leg injury) was not in uniform. Fleck has said he hasn’t determined whether he will redshirt Autman-Bell, who was impressive early in camp before suffering the injury.
• Adekunle Ayinde started the first half at safety as McGhee served his suspension.
• The Gophers’ helmets featured a gold stripe down the middle with flecks of gold and the words “ROW THE BOAT” and “SKI-U-MAH.’’