Johnson learning the lessons of receiver

by David La

Minnesota receiver Ron Johnson unknowingly taught current teammate Karon Riley a lesson during high school that Johnson would eventually need in college.
Johnson, Riley and the other members of the football team at Martin Luther King High School in Detroit all received winter hats, complete with a fuzzy ball on top. While the rest of the guys removed the ball, Riley left his on. And for good reason.
“The ball attracted the women because it was cute,” Riley said. “So all the guys wanted me to take the ball off because they were jealous. Ron played decoy to get my attention and the other guys came and snatched my ball off. I was mad for a couple days; I really liked that ball.
“I still wear the hat all the time, but it isn’t the same without the ball.”
Since his arrival with the Gophers, Johnson has discovered that life without the football goes on, too.
“If the play is for me I’m going to get open,” Johnson said. “But a lot of times I’m the clear-out guy or a decoy.”
But decoys with the size — 6-foot-3, 212 pounds — and speed of Johnson cannot be overlooked. The sophomore is second on the team in receptions with 16, third in yards with 153 and has one touchdown.
Behind the rather average numbers lie contributions that endear Johnson to his coaches.
“What we ask the receivers to do is get after people down field,” receivers coach Joker Phillips said. “Some of the runs that (Thomas) Hamner is making is a result of those guys blocking downfield.”
Johnson has hurt defensive backs in many ways throughout his career. In his senior season in high school, Johnson ripped off 1,006 yards on 49 catches for a whopping 20.5 yards per catch.
His first season at Minnesota was record-setting. Johnson set freshman records for catches (38) and receiving touchdowns (4) while studying the intricacies of his positions — learning proper stance, getting away from defensive backs and blocking.
During his first season, Johnson wore No. 89 but switched to No. 3 after the season because one of his favorite receivers, Keyshawn Johnson, wore that number during his college days.
But Johnson is not proclaiming that the offense should “give him the damn ball.” Rather, he concedes that there are enough passes to be caught by everyone.
“Every (receiver) has shown at times that they can take over the game,” Johnson said, “and we’re just happy to see somebody do it.”
Johnson’s father, Ron Johnson Sr., is happy to see his son playing college football. The elder Johnson was a cornerback for the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers from 1978-84 and earned two Super Bowl rings (in ’78 and ’79).
“It’s a thrill for me to sit up there in the stands and watch him come out there in a college football uniform and play in the Big Ten,” Johnson Sr. said.
But Johnson Sr. is even more proud of Junior for being named a scholar-athlete award winner last year, citing the need to be prepared when “either he walks away from football or football walks away from him.”
Whether his son, a pre-business major, immediately becomes a stock broker or a receiver that encourages his offense to go for broke, Johnson Sr. has taught his son to go and get it.
“When he said he wanted to be a receiver, I told him, ‘If you’re going to play it, then you’re going to have to focus on being a John Stallworth or Lynn Swann type of guy,” Johnson Sr. said. “Both those guys had great concentration on the football. The ball would be in the air, and they would just take it from people.”
Or, if the ball is on a hat, be a decoy so someone else can take it away. Just ask Karon.

David La Vaque covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]