Tyler Johnson and wide receiving crew look to carry early success into Big Ten Play

Johnson leads the team with 20 catches, 283 yards and five touchdowns

Junior Tyler Johnson runs the ball on Saturday, Sept. 14 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Courtney Deutz

Junior Tyler Johnson runs the ball on Saturday, Sept. 14 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Max Biegert

Junior Tyler Johnson will enter Minnesota’s first Big Ten game this weekend leading the league with five touchdowns.

Johnson, who was highly touted as a recruit from nearby Minneapolis North, is primed to be the go-to target for a young Minnesota team looking for a better Big Ten season than last year.

“Not focused on last year at all,” Johnson said. “We are just going out, playing one game at a time and that is our focus.”

Johnson finished the non-conference slate of games with a team high 20 catches, 283 yards and five touchdowns. He hopes the production in the first part of the schedule continues into the conference play.

Minnesota enters Big Ten play this season just as they did last year, with a record of 3-0. However, the Gophers will look to improve upon the two victories they picked up in conference play last season.

Johnson had 12 catches for 282 yards and two touchdowns after the first three games last year. However, the production fell off once conference play began. In the next nine games, Johnson had 23 catches for 395 yards and four touchdowns.

When asked how he will be more consistent this season, offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca pointed to Johnson’s work ethic that started in the spring.

“The thing he has improved the most since last season is his consistency,” Ciarrocca said. “In spring ball he just consistently put elite days together where he was making his weakness his strengths and his strengths he was making stronger.”

In an effort to get the ball in the hands of Johnson, Cirarrocca moved Johnson to the slot position in the latest game against Miami. Ciarrocca said that Johnson is their best wide receiver and if week to week he feels like Johnson can get the ball from the slot, he will not be afraid to move him from outside to inside and mix him around in the offense.

Johnson said something he really focused on in the off-season was making sure his footwork was better. In order to get himself open, he said his main goal before he came back to camp was to make sure his route running was improved.

Since last season, the Gophers have seen an influx of freshmen join Johnson on the outside in Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell. Last season after Johnson, who finished the year with 35 catches, the Gophers next leading receiver was Phillip Howard with 11.

Johnson found himself doubled in many of the Big Ten games last season, but with the addition of the freshmen, he may have more space. Through the first three games of the season, Bateman has 13 catches for 124 yards and Autman-Bell has seven catches for 89 yards.

“If we can continue to develop that supporting cast around them, that will only make Johnson better,” head coach P.J. Fleck said.

Johnson said he has confidence in the young receivers around him and that the wide receiving core itself will be ready for the more intense and important Big Ten games.

The junior wide-out understands his leadership role and what he needs to do for the young receivers and said the best thing for him to do is to lead by example and show them what is expected of them to do.

Johnson said the main thing he does is hop in the front of the line and make sure the receivers are out there feeling confident in what they are doing, playing fast and having fun.

“Our guys have to look at Johnson and the production he has and know that is what they need to look like and that’s what they have to do to become like that,” Fleck said.

Johnson and the wide receiving corps’ first Big Ten test comes this weekend on the road against Maryland at 11 a.m. on Saturday. The Gophers hope they get off to a better start than they did last season in Big Ten play.

“We feel really good right now, 3-0 is a great start, but we are not really focused on that right now, we are just focused on one game at a time,” Johnson said.