There's something about Texas Longhorns senior wide receiver Daje Johnson that brings out the superstitiousness of head coach Charlie Strong.
Knock, knock, knock.
"Even my man Daje is different now. That's why you'd better hit it," Strong said, laughing, at the midway point of fall camp before pausing to knock on wood again.
"I tell you, it's been fun watching Daje," Strong said. "He comes out there and doesn't say a word, and every day, even after practice, he's standing out in practice catching balls. Him and Heard out there throwing balls after practice. Before practice, he picks up a rubber ball and tells the receiver, they're going down the field playing catch back and forth."
The relationship hasn't always been fun between the two, as even the meeting between the new head coach and his then-junior speedster didn't exactly go so well.
There was Johnson, walking through the Texas football facilities with his boys on the way to work out.
"Oh God, you're the guy I want," Strong said.
Then the tongue lashing commenced, with Strong telling Johnson that he couldn't let himself get suspended again after his previous behavior forced three suspensions on the Pflugerville Hendrickson product. As for the three going to work out together? Strong let Johnson know that his friends weren't welcome in the weight room and saved him the trouble of dealing with an irate Pat Moorer, the intense new Longhorns strength and conditioning coach.
The encounter started a long journey for Johnson that Strong said during the spring -- while knocking on wood, of course -- had brought the dynamic athlete "a million miles" from where he'd been. Still, that road hasn't always been a straight one, as Johnson got himself suspended for a fourth time last summer for an unspecified violation of team rules during the wave of suspensions and dismissals that defined the lead up to Texas fall camp in 2014.
So Strong had to sit down with his troubled player and come to an understanding. Johnson would fulfill the terms of a contract the head coach laid out for him or he would no longer be a part of the team.
"I said, this is what you're going to have to do in order to show me that you want to be a part of this program," Strong said last fall. "If you get that done, we're going to shake hands, hug, and you go on about your business, and I'll go on about mine, and you'll be a part of it."
Johnson said that everything finally clicked for him -- he realized that he had to change his behavior, that there were people who believed in him he didn't want to let down.
Still, the season didn't exactly go as planned. After returning from his suspension, Johnson suffered a hamstring injury that derailed his junior campaign and limited him to -7 yards rushing on five attempts and only 88 yards receiving.
And then Johnson made the poor and unfortunate decision to release and promote his single, "Dealer", back in July, prompting a call from the head coach wondering if Johnson still considered himself a part of the team. Scared of losing the spot he'd put in all that effort to retain, Johnson apologized and managed to avoid yet another suspension, but raised further questions about whether his development was really enough for him to finally maximize his incredible potential.
According to Strong and some other reports out of practice, Johnson has been doing exactly that during fall camp, scoring two touchdowns during the team's first scrimmage and another last Saturday, showing off the tantalizing explosiveness he's displayed in rare flashes over his three years at Texas.
A particular focus has been on blocking, as his poor efforts on several occasions during the spring resulted in big hits by nickel corner John Bonney on Texas receivers catching quick screen passes. Work on his hands has been a point of emphasis for Johnson as well, as Strong mentioned above. With Texas wide receivers struggling to catch passes at times over the last several weeks, becoming a reliable option in that regard could be significant for the Longhorns in 2015.
There's been some friendly but pointed motivation from Strong, too. The head coach has mentioned several times over the last few months that he likes to remind Johnson that the 5'9, 184-pounder hasn't made a play since his game-changing punt return touchdown against Oklahoma in 2013.
The good-natured ribbing is part of Strong's personality and it's part of what has Johnson walking a different path now -- he's starting to see in himself the character traits that Strong saw in him that the head coach wanted to nurture and cultivate. Strong has also made appeals to Johnson's pride.
"I tell him, let me tell you something: There are a lot of young men like you with a ton of ability, and where do they sit? They're sitting somewhere on Eighth or Ninth Street talking about where they were or what they did. I was the best. Okay, you were? Look at you now. I don't want you to be that person. You know what I want to happen to you? I want you to drive by them one day and they're yelling at you, and you blow your horn at them and keep driving. [And say] You know what, that's not ever going to be me."
So Johnson has one last opportunity to make sure he's that guy driving by blowing his horn. Declaring himself healthy and free of off-field distractions, Johnson had one simple message about that when made availabile to the media at the start of fall camp.
"I'm just ready to ball."