Collin Johnson has spent more than a month relegated to the sidelines as he nursed a hamstring injury, missing three games in the process. For the most part, the Texas offense has been just fine in his absence, producing 42 points per contest, but the passing attack — though still efficient — hasn’t been quite as notable, especially throughout the first two Big 12 meetings against Oklahoma State and West Virginia.
Devin Duvernay exploded for 108 yards on 12 receptions against the Pokes, but no other Longhorn hauled in more than two catches. The next time out against the Mountaineers, Duvernay once again led the way with 12 more catches for 86 yards, but no other receiver totaled more than 34 yards.
That said, prior to his hamstring ailment, Johnson’s numbers weren’t the most appealing on paper, contributing only seven catches for 108 yards and one score this season. But nevertheless, his mere presence and the attention he attacks on the boundary side noticeably opens opportunities for other Texas receivers to thrive, as Johnson noted earlier this season.
“(LSU) came out and started doubling me early in the game and that allowed some other people to be open,” Johnson said. “We need those guys. Brennan [Eagles] has been balling out, doing his thing, no surprise to me.”
With this all in mind, it’s no surprise that the Texas staff is excited about his return to the starting lineup as the Horns gear up for the Red River Showdown, when Texas will need every bit of offensive firepower and experience it can afford.
“I’m excited just to see 9 back on the field. Sam feels the same, I think, too,” Texas offensive coordinator Tim Beck said this week. “Not anything against what Malcolm [Epps has] done and Marcus [Washington] have done at that position, it’s just he’s a senior. He’s been through a lot, a lot of these big ballgames and been able to produce and he’s been in these battles. There’s something about having that presence and that experience of a guy that, ‘Hey, I’ve been here,’ not getting rattled.”
“Before the injury, we started to it see a little bit by how teams defended us,” Beck added. “They’ve gotta be very conscious of him and pick and choose spots where to give him one-on-one isolations. If they’re doubling him with a boundary safety then you’ve got Devin and Brennan over to the field that there’s not as much coverage and help over there. If they want to give those guys helped, then the box is going to lighten up.”
“But it all starts because they’ve got to help Collin.”
During Texas’ season-opening win over Louisiana Tech, the help Collin required paved the way for career nights from both Duvernay and Eagles, as Duvernay recorded a career-high nine catches, while Eagles did much of the same, turning his three receptions into 59 yards and two scores.
The following week against LSU, Duvernay and Eagles enjoyed record nights for the second time in as many weeks, with Duvernay exploding for 154 yards and two touchdowns on 12 catches, while Eagles also eclipsed the 100-yard mark with five receptions for 116 yards and one score.
Coincidently, save for Duvernay continuing to serve as Sam Ehlinger’s safety blanket, the Texas receiver corps hasn’t been quite as threatening without its 6’6 senior who totaled nearly 1,000 yards last season.
“It’s big,” Herman said when asked how valuable Johnson’s presence is and how much of a chess piece he is for the Texas offense. “I don’t want to discount that. Teams have decided to play him in man-to-man coverage and I’m sure we’ll see some of it; we’ve got to take advantage of it when we do. He’s a pretty good matchup in favor of Texas.”
As far as Saturday is concerned, the Oklahoma Sooners are well-aware of what kind of matchup Johnson can prove to be.
In two appearances against Oklahoma last season, Johnson amassed 14 receptions for 258 yards and two touchdowns, thanks in large part to a record performance in the Big 12 title game. Texas will certainly welcome that kind of productivity with the task of matching points with a potent Oklahoma offense looming, but even if it doesn’t come from Johnson, himself, the fact that he’s suiting up should pave the way for others such as Duvernay and Eagles to enjoy mismatches and one-on-one opportunities.