The departure of the top two leading Texas Longhorns receivers from 2014 means there's much more pressure on senior Marcus Johnson to emerge as a leader off the field and a productive force on the field.
If it happens, it will be a year later than expected, as there were significant hopes that Johnson could build on the big plays he made against Oklahoma and TCU in 2013 to emerge as a reliable big-play threat in 2014. Unfortunately for Johnson and the Longhorns, things didn't work out that way.
It wasn't just the lack of increased production from his sophomore year that made Johnson such a disappointment in 2014 after catching 22 passes for 350 yards and two touchdowns in 2013 -- it was the dropped passes at inopportune times, the inability to rise up to meet and own big moments.
"Honestly, I had dropped balls throughout the season during big times that should have never happened," he said on Wednesday.
Two of those dropped passes came against Oklahoma -- one in the first quarter that would have gone for at least 15 yards and a first down and one in the fourth quarter in traffic that would have gone for about 15 yards, but would have likely come up short of the first down on 3rd and 17. Johnson also dropped passes against Iowa State and Texas Tech.
In an effort to ensure that his hands are no longer the problem, Johnson has been working hard on the jugs machine, catching 300 tennis balls after offseason workouts and practices. Putting in extra work is exactly the type of dedication that helped John Harris put up the school's first 1,000-yard season by a wide receiver since Jordan Shipley in 2009. Now Harris' story serves both as a reminder of what could lie in store for Johnson and as a challenge.
"John [Harris] was somebody who went through the same thing," Johnson said. "He had his ups and downs; he was able to really hone in and focus in on what would make him a better overall receiver."
Now the League City product is embarking on his own journey, paying attention to details that didn't matter to him in the past.
"My route running, the little technical things, detail in my routes -- it is really showing so far this spring," Johnson said. "Things like that, the little things, just going back. I never felt like it was anything too major but little detail things that make a difference when you sit back and look at it and you wonder why you caught this pass but you couldn't make more with it or the little things. Reading the coverage and understanding what opens up and how you can be more of a dynamic player just from things like that."
By working even harder on his craft than before, he's now able to lead his younger teammates by example, a critical development for an offense that lost three important locker-room voices in Harris, fellow wide receiver Jaxon Shipley, and running back Malcolm Brown.
"Just taking more of a leadership role," Johnson said of his change in focus. "Being able to show the guys the right way to work, proper work ethic, and going out there and doing extra just to make myself better as a receiver."
After watching the film from last season, the 6'1, 194-pounder now understands what went wrong and wants to use his subpar junior season as a learning experience to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
Tasked with helping Johnson maximize his significant potential is new wide receivers coach Jay Norvell. One of the appeals of the former Oklahoma staffer when hired was his six years of experience working in the NFL, including four years with the Indianapolis Colts. As a result of that stint, Norvell likes to regale his players with stories about Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, and Reggie Wayne. He also spent two years with the Oakland Raiders, coaching the tight ends on the same offense that featured legendary wide receivers like Tim Brown and Jerry Rice.
Norvell is now passing on his own takeaways from those learning experiences for him in an effort to help Johnson understand the type of dedication it takes to play at a Hall of Fame level or, in Johnson's case, at an All-Conference level.
So far there have been some results, as head coach Charlie Strong called Johnson the best receiver in last Saturday's scrimmage.
With a new outlook, a new position coach, a new level of confidence, and a template to follow in Harris' 2014 season, Johnson increasingly has the mental and technical tools to become the team's leading receiver and a reliable target for whichever quarterback ends up playing.
"You are not going to have it your way all the time, but the more that you work and the more confident you feel in yourself, it helps when it comes down to the time when you may make a mistake, but you are confident enough to know that the next play I am going to go make a play regardless."