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Collin Johnson could cap college career among Big 12’s elite receivers

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Between a mass exodus around the league and Johnson stepping into an even more significant role, the chance to go out as an All-Big 12 talent is there for the taking.

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Georgia vs Texas Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

On Nov. 28, nine wide receivers were named to the 2018 All-Big 12 team.

Collin Johnson wasn’t among them.

On Dec. 1, seemingly as a statement showing, the Texas Longhorns pass catcher utterly torched the Oklahoma Sooners’ secondary to the tune of a new Big 12 Championship receiving record, hauling in eight pitches for a season-best 177 yards and one touchdown.

Was Johnson’s record-setting effort evidence of a snub? One could argue that, but those claims would likely fall on deaf ears, as 768 yards and six scores isn’t exactly all-conference caliber in a league such as the Big 12, which features no shortage of award-worthy wide receivers.

But many of the best the Big 12 had to offer in 2018 are now off to the NFL, providing an ideal opportunity for Johnson to cap his collegiate career among the cream of the crop in the conference and, in turn, all of college football.

Gone are All-Big 12 first-team receivers in Oklahoma’s Marquise “Hollywood” Brown and West Virginia’s David Sills V, both AP All-Americans, too. Gone are All-Big 12 Second-Team selections in Iowa State’s Hakeem Butler and Texas Tech’s Antoine Wesley. Gone are all-conference honorable mention talents in West Virginia’s Gary Jennings Jr. and Johnson’s teammate at Texas, Lil’Jordan Humphrey.

Plenty of premier pass-catching talent returns in 2019, to be sure, but of the eight Big 12 receivers who totaled more yards than Johnson last season, only three remain among the collegiate ranks — Oklahoma State’s Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, and TCU’s Jalen Reagor. It would be safe, if not wise, to pencil that trio in as the Big 12’s top tier entering 2019 — 247Sports’ Brad Crawford took it one step further, ranking each among the top 10 nationally — but that’s a conversation in which Johnson’s name merits mentioning, as well.

Even with the quarterback change set to take place in Stillwater, as either Spencer Sanders or Dru Brown will replace the departed Taylor Cornelius, Wallace will enter 2019 as a conference headliner, and for good reason after the 2018 Biletnikoff Award finalist finished last season ranked second nationally with 1,491 receiving yards and tied for eighth with 12 touchdowns. Lamb, projected by Crawford to emerge as the nation’s third-best pass catcher in 2019, has a convincing case for the top spot and is quite possibly the conference’s best pass-catching NFL prospect.

Save for a surprise, the two will go on to occupy two of the three available spots on the 2019 All-Big 12 first-team. Wise money would wager on that third slot going to either Reagor or Johnson, though Baylor’s Denzel Mims, or even Oklahoma State’s Tyron Johnson, should have a case in the conversation.

So what’s the case for Johnson as a potential first-team all-Big 12 receiver?

Much like Mims, and quite unlike Reagor, Johnson should stand to benefit by returning to his role as the primary receiver for Texas. After leading the receiver room as a sophomore with 725 yards, Johnson took a bit of a back seat to Humphrey, who hauled in 18 more receptions and was targeted 11 more times throughout the 2018 season. The separation between the two was slight, but now that Johnson won’t have to share those targets with Humphrey, the statistical rewards he’ll reap should be substantial.

Expect much of the same for Mims with Hurd’s departure. Texas Tech’s T.J. Vasher steps into primary role in place of Wesley, while Marcus Simms will be doing the same in West Virginia without Sills and Jennings, though the quarterback situations in Lubbock and Morgantown are far more foggy than they are in Austin and Waco with Sam Ehlinger and Charlie Brewer orchestrating the offenses, respectively.

To that end, a suspect quarterback situation at TCU could very well be what allows Johnson or Mims to construct a more successful season than the tremendously-speedy Reagor.

While Texas and Baylor will feature arguably the top two field generals in the conference — certainly two of the top four depending upon the outlook of Jalen Hurts at Oklahoma and Brock Purdy at Iowa State — TCU’s quarterback room remains completely up in the air and unproven. The likely frontrunner, redshirt freshman Justin Rogers, has just one career completion to his name, and his primary competition, Kansas State grad transfer Alex Delton, has amassed fewer than 1,200 passing yards and just five touchdowns throughout the past two seasons. Michael Collins is also competing for that role after starting four games last season, compiling 1,059 yards and six scores before an injury shortened his debut campaign.

That said, Reagor did excel last season season despite the inconsistencies and injuries that plagued Collins and Shawn Robinson, who has since transferred to Missouri, but a statistical step back next season wouldn’t surprise anyone.

On the other hand, Johnson seems all but certain to surpass his 2018 effort and eclipse the 1,000-yard mark for the first time, barring injury. Last season, Johnson fell just 14 yards shy of that feat, despite missing the Texas Tech game due to injury and seeing as many as 189 yards and three scores negated as the victim of seven defensive pass interference calls. Hypothetically speaking, had Johnson matched his season average of 75 yards per game against Texas Tech and been granted the freedom to cleanly haul in the seven pitches that ended with defensive pass interference calls, his 1,250 yards would have finished as the 12th-best effort nationally.

But, of course, pass interference calls prevent yards for almost all receivers. The most notable issue in Johnson’s inability to yet surpass the 1,000-yard mark — what could make or break his case as a first-team all-conference receiver in 2019 — is consistency, or the lack thereof.

Last season, Johnson torched TCU, Baylor, and Oklahoma for 100-yard showings, but wasn’t anywhere near as imposing elsewhere. For example, Johnson netted just 13 receptions for 175 yards throughout the first three weeks of the season before totaling 124 yards against the Horned Frogs. The two weeks that followed — a road trip to Kansas State and a Red River Showdown win over Oklahoma — produced just 10 receptions for 132 yards, a total he matched on one afternoon against Baylor.

Johnson then regressed back to the mean throughout his next four appearances, though, collecting 16 receptions for 205 yards prior to his 177-yard explosion in the Big 12 Championship game. But in continuing with the inconsistent trend, Johnson’s final appearance of the season, a 28-21 Sugar Bowl win over Georgia, saw him contribute just 40 yards on three receptions.

When Johnson is at his best, as he was last season against TCU, Baylor, and Oklahoma, or against Maryland and USC in 2017, Johnson undeniably looks the part of one of the premier pass catchers in the conference, if not the entire country. But, of course, Johnson wasn’t at his best often enough, which is largely why he watched as nine others were named to the All-Big 12 team in 2018.

With the bulk of that brass now off to the NFL, Johnson is fairly widely expected to cap his college career among the cream of the crop in the conference.

Can he remain consistent enough to do so? That much remains to be seen, but at the very least, he’ll enter his final season on the Forty Acres with as many expectations and promise as any receiver in the Big 12.