Turning down the NFL gives receiver Johnson a shot at Minnesota team records

John R. Carter

The cover of the Gophers football media guide declares senior Ron Johnson as a candidate for the Biletnikoff Award – given to the nation’s top wide receiver.

Based on his career with Minnesota, however, many feel Johnson is a worthy candidate for the Heisman Trophy.

Over the past three seasons, Johnson has made his mark as arguably the best wideout in school history. When the season ends he will likely hold school records in receptions and receiving yards.

Johnson, with help from his 6-foot-3 frame, has already set the school record with 22 touchdown receptions. When it comes to big games, Johnson is the Randy Moss of the Gophers.

In Minnesota’s upset of second-ranked Penn State two years ago, Johnson hauled in one touchdown, then made a huge 46-yard catch on the final drive to set up the winning field goal.

Three games later, Johnson grabbed a pair of touchdowns in a loss to Oregon in the Sun Bowl.

But Johnson’s signature game was last season’s win at Ohio State. He torched the Buckeyes and cornerback Nate Clements for eight catches, 163 yards and one score, helping the Gophers to their first win at the Horseshoe in 51 years.

“He never takes a day off,” said Minnesota tight end Ben Utecht. “That’s what we need.”

Added quarterback Travis Cole, “He’s a playmaker – he’s a freak. It’s nice to have our go-to guy back.”

The comments from his teammates come with more high praise – and a sigh of relief. Utecht, Cole and the rest of the Gophers are lucky to have Johnson back for one final season.

The senior could be playing on Sunday’s this year.

After earning all-Big Ten honors a year ago, Johnson thought long and hard about turning professional and declaring for the NFL draft.

In fact, he even filled out all the necessary paperwork needed to apply for the draft. But Johnson felt rushed and the forms never found their way to the mailbox.

Johnson said he didn’t feel 100-percent certain leaving school a year early was the right thing to do, so he decided to return to the Gophers.

“I wasn’t ready (for the NFL),” Johnson said. “I never had any doubt in my mind.

“Once the draft deadline was over, it was a weight off my shoulders. People stopped asking me what I was doing. I knew my decision and I was ready to come back to Minnesota.”

Only time will tell if his decision was the right one.

It seems like a win-win situation. Johnson is just 22 catches and 424 yards away from becoming statistically the most celebrated wide receiver ever to wear a Minnesota uniform.

Baring injury, he will reap the benefits of an NFL contract and professional stardom a year from now.

As for how things will stack up for Johnson’s team, a great deal remains to be seen. Based on the way things went in last Thursday’s 38-7 loss in Toledo, it could be a long year for the Gophers.

If losing becomes a regular thing, Minnesota fans may change their Saturday tune from, `Did the Gophers win?’ to, `What did Ron do?’

And if that’s the case, Johnson may be looking ahead to April’s draft day like some already are.

Although he still has 10 more games in a Gophers uniform, Johnson’s name has found its way to many experts’ draft board.

ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. – a man who eats, drinks and sleeps the NFL draft – lists Johnson as the top receiver and 10th best prospect overall in the senior class. Johnson knows this too, but insists it won’t change a thing.

“I am not going to worry about that,” Johnson said. “That’s hype.”

Hype is something Johnson is used to. He’s lived up to it his entire Gophers career.

John R. Carter covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]