When University of Toledo junior receiver Diontae Johnson has the ball in his hands, all bets are off.
Whether it is on a short screen pass, a punt return, or a kickoff return, the game simplifies and Johnson’s natural instincts and uncommon speed take over.
“There is an excitement every time I get the ball,” Johnson said.
The coaches at Toledo certainly have taken note of that excitement and Johnson’s penchant for making big plays and have tried to get him as many touches as possible in all phases of the game.
“He has elite quickness,” UT coach Jason Candle said. “He does a good job of putting his foot in the ground and getting north in the screen game. He’s a versatile guy and he’s an explosive player.”
Johnson is coming off a sophomore season in which he caught 74 passes for a single-season school-record 1,278 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“He has an old soul to where it’s like he’s playing tag out there,” Toledo receivers coach Mike Bellamy said. “He’s one of those guys that doesn’t see anybody out there. He just wants to score and do something better for the team. He’s an old-school kid that you just put the ball in his hands and everybody tries to tackle him and he says you can’t.
“A lot of the stuff he does is not regular stuff. He stops on a dime, puts his hand down and then goes in another direction.”
On top of his breakout season as a receiver, Johnson was a home-run threat as a punt and kickoff returner.
Johnson returned 30 kicks for 638 yards, including a 99-yarder for a touchdown against Elon. He had just four punt returns in 2017, but took one 87 yards for a score at Ball State.
For his efforts, Johnson was named first-team All-Mid-American Conference as a receiver and punt returner and second-team All-MAC as a kickoff returner. He was the first Toledo player to make the All-MAC team at three positions since Eric Page in 2011.
“We’ve had a lot of great players here that were able to do multiple things — be great receivers and major assets in the return game and have the ability to change the course of the game in one touch,” Candle said. “[Diontae] is certainly one of those guys. He’s improved a ton over his career and he’s matured a lot.”
Growth as a receiver
Bellamy admits there were times when he was new to the Rockets coaching staff when he and Johnson bumped heads. But Bellamy said lately they have been on the same page as far as how committed Johnson has to be in order to grow as a receiver.
“Once the investment matches the goals, then you start seeing success,” Bellamy said. ‘That’s where he is now. His goals are matching up with his investment.”
Despite last season’s success, Johnson thinks he is a better player at this point in his career.
“I’ve been studying myself this summer on film and seeing what I can do better,” the Ruskin, Fla., native said. “There are certain movements and things that I can improve on. I feel like I’m a better route-runner than I was last year.”
“He’s a student,” Bellamy added. “He’s always in the office. He’s always up there watching film. He’s asking questions. He is enamored by greatness and the guys who do it professionally.”
Sometimes Bellamy says Johnson’s feet are so quick in drills he has to slow him down a bit. But he still has to allow Johnson to harness his natural talent.
“Some people have a hitch in their jump shot,” Bellamy said. “You are not trying to fix a jump shot that’s perfect. He has some things that he does well, that we don’t try to fix. He’s been working on defensive coverages now. He’s been working on being able to beat different kinds of man and press. He understands the route tree a little bit better. It has become about him trying to reach another level, but I think he is getting better every day.”
Getting off the line of scrimmage is a key to route-running for a receiver, and Johnson has shown an aptitude for that.
“He is quick as a hiccup off the line,” Bellamy said. “Every play he has a plan. Every time he comes up to the line of scrimmage, he’s not doing the same thing. He wants to try something different. It’s all a process for him and I think for him, the best is yet to come.”
Special teams star
Toledo special teams coach Robby Discher said the first step to any kickoff or punt return is securing the ball. What comes next often varies with the skill of the return man.
After catching the ball, Johnson said the first thing he does is read his blockers and choose a lane to run through.
“I really just try to see where everybody is at,” Johnson said. “I look to see if there are any lanes to hit where I can break it open. Really it is just the fundamentals first before I take off, which is catching the ball and bringing it in.”
Discher said he remembers the two special teams touchdowns by Johnson well.
Diontae Johnson took a punt return 87 yards for a TD at Ball State last season.
DEREK MARCKEL/UNIVERSITY OF TOLEDO Enlarge
“The punt return he had against Ball State, a good returner gets a 20-yard return on that, but Diontae scores,” Discher said. “What he did on the sideline, I’m still not sure how he stayed in bounds. It had nothing do with me.”
On the kickoff return touchdown, Johnson was able to use his speed to overcome a few blocking errors on the play.
“We had it set up to maybe get to the 35- or 40-yard line, so it was a good return,” Discher said. “But then you just have a special athlete out there running away from people. He did a great job hitting that thing vertically and pressing the wedge. We missed a block on the back side, but Diontae is fast enough to run away from the guy we missed. That speed is something you can’t coach.”
Discher is impressed with how dedicated Johnson is to being a special teams contributor.
“He has the versatility and the natural ball skills,” Discher said. “And he’s a tough kid too. He doesn’t mind being back there on punt or kick return. He wants to be the guy with the ball in his hands. I think with a fast guy who is physical and not scared and genuinely wants to help the team, you have a good starting point. From there, he has worked his way to what he has become in my opinion.”
Johnson is one of the top returning receivers in the nation and has received some preseason buzz on the 2018 awards watch lists. He is a Biletnikoff Award candidate for the nation’s top receiver. He also is a candidate for the Paul Hornung Award, which goes to the nation’s most versatile player.
“I take pride in what I do,” Johnson said. “Any chance I get, I try to do little drills on the side, working on kickoff and punt returns. So yes, I definitely take pride in that.”
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