April 3, 2015

By Jeff White (jwhite@virginia.edu)

CHARLOTTESVILLE — In a disappointing 2013 season for the UVa football team, highlights included the play of true freshman Keeon Johnson, who combined size, speed and sure hands and appeared ready to become the program’s next big-time wide receiver.

Johnson may yet reach that level, but he didn’t come close in 2014.

After catching 20 passes for 282 yards and one touchdown in 2013 — only two wide receivers had more receptions for Virginia that fall — Johnson finished last season with 13 catches for 138 yards and no TDs.

Five of his fellow wideouts had more receptions than Johnson: Canaan Severin (42), Darius Jennings (27), Miles Gooch (24), Doni Dowling (17) and Andre Levrone (15).

Johnson, who’s from Kannapolis, N.C., didn’t make his college debut until the Wahoos’ fifth game in 2013, but he finished the season with seven starts. As a sophomore, he played in all 12 games but started only three.

“I think that I could have done a lot better,” Johnson said after practice Thursday morning. “There were times where I could have focused more, and I kind of got too comfortable. So it was a good learning lesson for me. Now I’ve got my head straight again.”

Call it a sophomore slump if you like. To Johnson, “it was just a big-head thing from being a first-year and starting and all that stuff, but like I said it was a lesson learned.”

His productivity increased late in the season — Johnson had eight receptions in UVa’s final five games — as a result of his improved practice habits and some constructive criticism from teammates and coaches.

“They kind of told me the truth,” Johnson said. “I’m glad they helped me out with that and woke me up.

“I started treating every day like it was a game. Every rep, every play I just tried to do my best and work my way back into the rotation.”

Marques Hagans, who starred at UVa as a quarterback, wide receiver and return specialist, is Johnson’s position coach. Johnson is not the first player, Hagans noted Thursday, to stumble after a fast start.

“I think at times you can get comfortable,” Hagans said. “You have early success, and you think you kind of got it figured out. But throughout your college career, you always gotta [strive] to get better, and I think that’s something he had to realize, because there was a lot of potential based upon his freshman year, and he didn’t climb over the hump his second year.”

At 6-3, 210 pounds, Johnson remained an impressive physical presence, but his attention to detail occasionally waned. With other options at wideout, Hagans didn’t hesitate to use them, and the Cavaliers, 2-10 in 2013, improved to 5-7 last year.

“I think [Johnson] kind of knew the playbook, but he didn’t know it as thoroughly in his details as he should have,” Hagans said. “I think he’s taking on the challenge to do that. So now he’s being more thorough in his preparation and working even harder than he did before.”

In a meeting with Johnson after the season, Hagans said, “I was honest with him about where he was, where he needed to go, and what we needed to do. He accepted it, and now we’ve just got to see if he can continue to build on it and be consistent.”

Gooch and Jennings were seniors in 2014, and Dowling is out with a knee injury that’s expected him to sideline this fall, too. But Severin, Andre Levrone, Kyle Dockins and Jamil Kamara are among the Cavaliers’ returning wideouts, and the receiving corps added a talented transfer in former North Carolina standout T.J. Thorpe, who joined the team in January.

In three seasons at UNC, Thorpe caught 42 passes for 574 yards and five TDs.

“That’s what you want,” Hagans said. “You want competition all around the board. I never like for people to get comfortable, and it’s been good for us so far in the spring.”

Johnson knows he’ll have to earn his playing time, and that’s the way he likes it.

“At the end of the day it helps all of us compete more and more each day,” Johnson said. “Everyone’s trying to get a starting position. Everyone’s grinding every day, even after practice and before practice. It keeps everybody on their toes, so at the end of the day we all get better from it.”

Johnson has improved this spring, Hagans said, but “now we gotta see if he can do it in the first game of the season against UCLA.”

The same holds true for all the receivers.

“Can we be consistent through the rest of spring ball?” Hagans said. “Can we carry it over through training camp in the summer, and then can we do it against top-notch competition when we step across the country against UCLA?”

Hagans hasn’t forgotten the talent Johnson flashed as a true freshman in 2013. “That’s potential,” Hagans said. “Now he’s got to turn that into production.”

Johnson believes he can.

“Yes, sir,” he said. “Now I can’t just talk about it. I have to make it happen.”

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