They are only sophomores, but University of Toledo wide receivers Diontae Johnson and Danzel McKinley-Lewis, and running back Art Thompkins, are adding a new dynamic to the Rockets offense.
Mixed in with star veterans like quarterback Logan Woodside, wide receiver Cody Thompson, and running back Terry Swanson, the young trio has proven to be a big-play waiting to happen.
“When you are recruiting, you try to recruit playmakers, guys that can score the ball from wherever they touch it,” UT coach Jason Candle said. “Those guys have that game-breaking ability. They’ve got great speed and they have earned the right to be in those situations. They have put themselves in position to have opportunities in games.”
That game-breaking ability was on full display in a 54-51 shootout win over Tulsa. Johnson caught four passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns. McKinley-Lewis caught a 60-yard TD on the first offensive play from scrimmage and Thompkins averaged 6.9 yards per carry en route to 83 yards rushing.
“We have so many guys that can break a big play,” Thompkins said. “It can be Danzel one day, Diontae the next and then possibly me. So I feel like we have that big-play ability and that helps us a lot with our diversity and just gives us an edge on offense with players that can make big plays. If you have players that can go the distance, that certainly is beneficial.”
Candle knows that in this offense, with Woodside at the helm, there are plays to be made on the outside and in the running game. He said Johnson and Thompkins specifically have taken advantage of that.
“Those young players, they want the ball every play,” Candle said. “They get frustrated sometimes when they don’t get it. I think what you are seeing is those two guys in particular and other guys in our offense make the most of their opportunities. I think Diontae had four catches the other night for 140-some yards and two touchdowns. That is making the most of your opportunities. Art Thompkins, the same thing, when he gets his touches he does a good job.”
Woodside, a notorious hard-worker, has appreciated the work-ethic of the young players.
“Those are three guys that work hard each and every day that they are here,” Woodside said. “Diontae is here all the time working and I think he has really grown a lot. I think those guys, their speed really showed on Saturday night [against Tulsa]. They are going to continue to work hard and be playmakers for us.”
Thompson said the threat of the young players has made the Toledo offense hard to prepare for.
“We have a lot of young guys stepping up and making plays,” Thompson said. “It just shows that we have playmakers all over the field. You can’t really hone in to one person. You never know who is going to make that next play, whether that is an 80-yard touchdown or a 3rd-and-short that they convert on.”
Johnson showed flashes of brilliance in his true freshman season in 2015, but he suffered a foot injury that caused him to miss all of last season. He is just happy to be back on the field and making plays for the team.
“It feels good,” Johnson said. “Me sitting out last year, it just made me more hungry and I wanted to learn the game more. So come game time, I know my stuff and I’m ready to go and have everything I need to make plays of the field.”
Thompkins also flashed his big-play ability in his redshirt freshman season last year, averaging 8.1 yards per carry when he got onto the field. He knows his role is to come in as a change of pace for Swanson, who is the lead back.
“We just provide depth right now,” Thompkins said. “We have a lot of older guys that have established themselves and have had great careers so far. We just try to come in and contribute as much as we can. Of course we feel like we have an edge and we can help.”
McKinley-Lewis, caught just seven passes as a redshirt freshman last season, but was able to take some time to learn from guys like Corey Jones and Thompson.
“I learned just to play my part,” McKinley-Lewis said. “I learned how to catch, learned how to make routes, how to read people. And from Corey Jones, I learned how quick he was. I’m not as quick as him, but I learned how to use my body and try to turn those corners.”
Candle said each of the three sophomores have learned from their time off and have earned the right to be on the field.
“It’s skill development and it’s the emotional part of this thing and it’s the mental part of this thing,” Candle said. “Sometimes that takes time to totally surface. I give those guys a lot of credit. They have done a great job of paying attention to the details of that and that is why they are seeing these rewards and seeing what they have done so far.”
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