March 7, 2014
By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — Spring break begins this weekend at the University of Virginia, and Keeon Johnson is heading home to Kannapolis, N.C., after his final class Friday.
If he can get a ticket, Johnson might try to catch some of the ACC men’s basketball tournament next weekend in Greensboro. His teammates at A.L. Brown High included Teven Jones, now a sophomore guard on Tony Bennett’s basketball team at Virginia, and Johnson is a big hoops fan. Once he returns to Virginia, though, his primary focus will be football.
A 6-3, 200-pound wide receiver, Johnson has been in college for less than 10 months, and he didn’t make his college debut until the Cavaliers’ fifth game last season. By season’s end, however, he had established himself as one of the team’s bright young talents, and much is expected of him this year.
“Everything has changed pretty rapidly,” Johnson said Thursday.
Like its counterparts in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision, Virginia is allowed to practice 15 times this spring. Head coach Mike London hoped to get in three of those practices before his players scattered for spring break, but Mother Nature intervened early this week, forcing the Wahoos to take Tuesday off.
The `Hoos have yet to practice in shoulder pads this spring, so the depth chart remains fluid. Rest assured, though, Johnson figures prominently in offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild’s plans.
“Everybody’s gotta get better, but Keeon did some nice things as a true freshman last year,” Fairchild said after practice Thursday morning. “We’re looking for him to take a step up and perhaps be a go-to receiver for us.”
Johnson played in UVa’s final eight games last season, starting all but one of them. He finished with 20 catches for 282 yards and one touchdown. Only two wideouts caught more passes for Virginia in 2013: Darius Jennings (38) and Tim Smith (26). Johnson’s average of 14.1 yards per reception was second on the team.
Against Clemson, Johnson caught five passes for 77 yards, both career highs. A week later, against North Carolina, he had five receptions for 59 yards and a touchdown.
“He exceeded my expectations,” said Marques Hagans, who coaches the Cavaliers’ wide receivers. “He came out, he competed well, he was on top of his assignments. He made some mistakes, but he’s got a bright future ahead of him.”
His first college season, Johnson said, was “a big step for me. I was glad I got that experience, but I’m not satisfied with it. If I could go back and change things, I would, maybe help us win some more games.”
The `Hoos closed the season with nine consecutive losses and finished 2-10. The offense’s lack of productivity contributed heavily to the team’s woes. Out of 123 teams, Virginia ranked 89th nationally in total offense and 109th in scoring offense.
Gone from that offense are Smith and linemen Morgan Moses and Luke Bowanko, but the core returns. Among those back this year are quarterbacks David Watford and Greyson Lambert, tailbacks Kevin Parks, Taquan Mizzell and Khalek Shepherd, tight ends Jake McGee and Zachary Swanson, fullback Connor Wingo-Reeves, linemen Jay Whitmire, Eric Smith, Conner Davis, Ross Burbank and Sadiq Olanrewaju, and wideouts Johnson, Jennings, Dominique Terrell, Miles Gooch and Kyle Dockins.
“We feel like there’s a lot on our shoulders,” Johnson said. “Obviously the defense has to make plays, but we have to score. We have to put points on the board.”
The Cavaliers had a surplus of wideouts last year, and the coaching staff hoped to redshirt Johnson. But the receiving corps struggled early in the season, and Johnson offered a rare combination of size and speed.
“You love to have a guy like that,” Hagans said.
Johnson wasn’t perfect, but “he played hard,” Fairchild said. “He was a true freshman. We threw him in the fire without a whole lot of seasoning, so to speak, and he performed well.
“He’s a big target that goes strong to the ball. He’s got good hands. So even if he doesn’t separate, he’s got a chance to make a play. He’s a kid with a lot of ability. We’re just going to hope he realizes it.”
Johnson said: “I just have to calm myself down and work on the little things, and it’ll lead to big things in the end.”
At first, Johnson said, “I felt like a chicken with my head cut off. Everything’s so much faster [in college]. High school was a lot easier. They’d say, `Run a go route,’ and you’d run a go route.’ At the next level, it’s more mental than physical.”
To accelerate Johnson’s development last fall, Hagans gave him a nightly assignment: Write out the plays the offense would practice the next day.
“Not only did I have to write my routes, I had to write all the [receivers’] routes,” Johnson said.
It takes time for a young receiver to learn “what to do and how to do it,” Hagans said, but Johnson, who turned 19 in late December, is an apt pupil.
“He’s a different guy mentally,” Hagans said. “As a freshman, he is a little bit beyond his years as far as maturity.”