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Run and Shoot coaching disciple June Jones has coached his share of star receivers both at the college and professional level. I’ve found that his frame of reference about the position is pretty good. If he praises a player’s potential, that receiver is worth watching. Jones has coached the likes of Emmanuel Sanders and Cole Beasley in recent years.
He also had Ashley Lelie and once said that former Hawaii receiver Davone Bess reminded him of Andre Rison. If you don’t understand the nature of comparisons, read this essay so your mindset isn’t so literal about this type of analysis. Bess is a fine NFL receiver. Not a superstar, but a reliable starter with a great third-down game and potential to develop into one of the best slots weapons in the league if the Miami offense can add and develop its skill talent in the next three to five years.
So when Jones shared in a weekly press conference this season that SMU receiver Darius Johnson might be the best receiver he’s ever coached, and possibly the best athlete, that raises the old antennae. Johnson is a 5-10, 175-pound receiver with excellent skill as a ball carrier in the open field. What stands out most about his game for me right now is his hand strength and skill to go all-out for the football.
The No-Huddle Series is not a full analysis of a player’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s just a chance to show readers why that player should be on the radar of NFL teams seeking depth with upside in the late rounds or potential street free agents with promise to develop into contributors. Johnson could become a valuable slot receiver.
A Megatron Catch From His Mini-Me
This is a first-and-10 play with 5:04 in the third quarter against Houston. Johnson is part of the trips package of a 3×1-receiver alignment from a 10-personnel pistol set. Johnson’s route is a corner route against zone. Before the play begins the Houston free safety works towards the line of scrimmage to the intermediate zone from his previous alignment deep.
Although the free safety works within six to seven yards of the line of scrimmage before the snap, he drops into coverage as the underneath zone defender on Johnson’s route. The cornerback outside drops into a deeper zone. SMU’s quarterback makes an ill-advised decision to target Johnson between these zones, lofting the ball up for grabs off his back foot.
However, Johnson displays a skill set that will make some temporarily forget about the reckless decision. By the time the ball arrives within a foot of the players, the SMU receiver has timed his leap perfectly. He’s over the top of the defensive back with his hands in great position to attack the ball first.
Johnson is first to the ball, but he’s in a position where his hands will need to be strong enough to pry the ball free from the defender from a position with gravity working against him and then control it before the defender recovers to knock it free from Johnson’s grip.
But to truly see how strong a grip Johnson has on the ball, it becomes even more telling how extraordinarily strong his hands are on this play when watching the position of the ball in Johnson’s hands as the receiver pulls it free from the defensive back below.
Not only does Johnson pull the ball free from the defender in better position, but he still has the awareness to tap both feet inside the boundary despite a second defender giving him a push in the back.
Johnson punctuates this 21-yard gain with a great toe-tap while maintaining firm possession of the ball even as he exits the boundary.
Darius Johnson isn’t Calvin Johnson, but this was one of the more difficult catches I’ve seen in respects both common (vertical leap-timing) and uncommon (hand strength and sideline awareness). In this contest, Johnson had two other catches where he had to make a strong adjustment to the football and in both cases he snatched the ball like he was practicing with a JUGS machine. I’m looking forward to seeing more – especially if he earns a postseason invitation to an all-star game and he faces single coverage and press corners. If he fares well, I think he might have a future as a potential dynamo in the slot. Stay tuned.