The flashes were there.
Two touchdown catches in a close win over Texas Tech on the road as a freshman.
Close to 200 yards on seven catches against USC as a sophomore.
For Texas Longhorns junior wide receiver Collin Johnson, the issues were always about physicality and consistency.
“Hey, you check a lot of boxes. Height, ball skills, speed, want-to, all that stuff. It’s can you be physical?” head coach Tom Herman asked Johnson in July of 2017.
Unfortunately, after three strong performances in the first five games last season, Johnson had displayed too much inconsistency and not enough physicality.
He had alternated those high-level efforts with two catches against San Jose State, Iowa State, and Oklahoma. By the time that Herman and his coaching staff had watched the film from the Cotton Bowl showdown, they’d had enough. Accountability, and all that.
When the depth chart for the Oklahoma State game came out two days later, Johnson was no longer the starter at the X position. It took him four games to earn it back.
This week, with the Cowboys once again looming on the schedule, Johnson was asked about that experience.
“I definitely learned a lot and I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” he said on Tuesday. “Any adversity that hits my life, I really take it and I grow from it. I try not to complain, I try not to get too down on myself.
“It’s all about moving forward because that’s all I can control. I take what’s in my ability to control and I do my absolute best at that and I let the rest take care of itself. That’s listening to the coaches, showing up to work every day and just taking care of my business.”
Johnson’s maturity and improvement have helped him tremendously this season — he’s become a reliable deep threat who consistently punishes defenses for attempting to defend him with single coverage. When he’s lined up as the single wide receiver, forcing opponents to bracket him with a safety is a significant expenditure of limited resources that opens up other possibilities for the Texas offense.
Spending a second season in the same system has also helped, according to offensive coordinator Tim Beck on Wednesday.
“Having done this a long time, I always kind of resort back to, he can focus more on his individual game and mentally and emotionally, as opposed to, ‘What route do I have on this play or what route on this?’”
As Beck likes to say, the progression in the second year of an offensive system is the whys and the hows instead of the whats.
The junior wide receiver has also been receptive to coaching in order to maximize his natural talent, which could ultimately be enough to entice Johnson to forego his final season of eligibility.
“He’s done a tremendous job on the 50-50 balls, as you’ve noticed, and fighting for body position or body control going up and getting the ball,” said Beck. “Those are all things that coach [Drew] Mehringer and coach [Corby] Meekins have worked with him on and he felt like that was an area that he wanted to work and get better at. And he did and he has and it’s allowed him to make the plays that he’s made, too.”
Many of those plays have come in critical moments. Of Johnson’s 13 catches on third down, 12 have picked up the necessary yardage. Two of them came in situations requiring 10 or more yards and one catch converted a fourth down.
Six catches have gone for 25 or more yards and he’s caught touchdown passes in each of the last four games. As a result, Johnson has five touchdowns on the season, which matches his career total entering the 2018 campaign.
With five games remaining, Johnson is within 12 catches and 202 yards of his totals from his sophomore year.
When discussing the issues connecting with junior wide receiver Devin Duvernay on post routes, Beck noted that the Texas quarterbacks have had more success with throwing the ball down the seam, often to junior wide receiver Lil’Jordan Humphrey, or down the sidelines, often to Johnson.
The major exception came against TCU in a critical situation, when the Texas coaches noticed a tendency in coverage by the Horned Frogs and called a post route for Johnson to exploit it. TCU head coach Gary Patterson admitted publicly after the game that he should have provided safety help over the top, but by that point it was too late.
Johnson had long since made the diving catch in the end zone. Texas had long since taken the lead, 17-16, and never looked back.
Johnson has also improved tremendously in another area — staying on his feet and picking up yards after the catch. A handful of his third-down conversions have been a result of making the first and sometimes second defender miss. Sometimes Johnson has simply run over overmatched opponents.
“It’s been impressive to see the growth and then the production because of it,” Beck said.
I asked Beck whether it’s the improved strength of Johnson or the improved understanding of the offense that has allowed him to become such a major threat after the catch.
“It’s all of it,” Beck replied. “Our strength program, as we’ve alluded to in the past, is tremendous with coach [Yancy] McKnight and his staff and what they do, but it also allows him to play faster.”
Faster, more physical, more consistent.
“I’ve never had a guy with his height and ball skills and ability to contort his body and have that much body control,” Herman said last year.
Now it’s all coming together.