COLUMBIA, Mo. — Johnathon Johnson knows there’s talk about his standing in the Missouri record books. With 2,171 career receiving yards, the redshirt senior slot receiver sits in seventh place all-time. But he hasn’t checked up on his progress since the start of the season, when he discovered he had about 800 yards to go to break the record. In his mind, he said, he still needs 1,000.
With so many viable targets for quarterback Kelly Bryant and six games remaining in the season, it will be difficult for Johnson to break the record set by Danario Alexander in 2009. Still, he has the opportunity to finish his career among some of Mizzou’s best. The six players ahead of him, besides Alexander? Justin Gage, Chase Coffman, J’Mon Moore, Jeremy Maclin and Martin Rucker.
Bryant noted that, at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, Johnson isn’t a receiver who stands out physically. But when he gets the ball, Bryant said, Johnson is “like magic.”
On Tuesday, as the No. 22 Tigers (5-1, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) prepared for Saturday’s game at Vanderbilt (1-5, 0-3), offensive coordinator Derek Dooley used the term “heart speed,” which he defined as “a lot of spirit, effort, toughness.”
When Johnson’s most recent performance got off to a rough start, it took some heart speed to turn a game that began with a crucial error into one in which he set a season high for receiving yards. After the Tigers’ defense forced a three-and-out on Ole Miss’ opening drive, Johnson went out to return the punt in place of injured Richaud Floyd. Johnson fumbled.
Redshirt freshman Cade Musser handled punt return duties for the rest of the night. Later in the game, Johnson handled a kickoff and mistakenly took a knee inside the 5-yard line after calling for a fair catch.
Johnson “thought he made a fair catch, so he wasn’t clear on the rules, so that’s (the coaches’) fault,” Missouri coach Barry Odom said. “He’s not going to get too down if something doesn’t go his way. He’s got a tough spirit about himself.”
Johnson said he was determined not to let it dictate the rest of his game at receiver. Bryant said he could tell Johnson wasn’t shaken.
Johnson went on to have a standout performance, finishing with 110 yards on eight receptions. Receivers coach Garrick McGee said Johnson’s value goes beyond one 100-yard game.
“Unless you catch passes and you’ve got production numbers, nobody really notices,” McGee said. “The energy level that he plays with, which does a lot for our team, his commitment to run blocking when we’re running the ball, those are the things that no one ever talks about. His energy can really spark the sideline and spark the team even when he’s not getting the ball.”
Still, Johnson does have production numbers. Every year for the past three seasons, he’s increased his total receiving yardage, and he finished 2018 strong with 185 yards on nine catches in the Liberty Bowl.
“He just got in shape,” McGee said of Johnson’s offseason. “Our strength coaches did a good job with him. He committed to it. We could tell when he came back for training camp that his body was different.”
This season, Johnson has 275 yards on 25 catches, giving him the lead in an offense that gives Bryant plenty of options. Nine Missouri players caught passes against Ole Miss, and three running backs, including former walk-on Dawson Downing, found the end zone.
Johnson has yet to catch a touchdown pass this season and add to his career total of 13. Bryant tends to target tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, who leads the team with five touchdowns, and receiver Jonathan Nance, who has three, for scores. But Johnson said he feels more comfortable when his quarterback is spreading the ball around, and that it’s a “coin toss” to see which member of Missouri’s deep receiving corps will be targeted.
“If I had, like, seven Julio Joneses, that’s what I would like,” Dooley said. “But if I didn’t have that, I like what we’ve got, which is a bunch of guys who all have different skill sets. They’re all bought into the team concept and bought into what we’re doing offensively, and they’re playing hard.”
In a crowded offense, Johnson has carved out his place. Even as he climbs the ranks in the history books, his focus stays on each individual game. While he tunes out the talk about records and yards, he knows it would be special to have his name high up among past Mizzou greats.
“Obviously, I came here to be able to be a great receiver in this offense,” he said. “If I were able to break a record to be the best receiver in Mizzou history, that would mean a lot to me.”