The end is near for Missouri slot receiver Johnathon Johnson.
With the first game of the season creeping in, Johnson understands that he’s coming up on another “last first.” He already had his “last first” fall camp practice back on Aug. 2. His “last first” day of classes at MU happened last Monday.
Saturday, though, will have a bit more meaning for Johnson, as it’ll be the “last” time he’ll get to play the “first” game of the season as a Tiger.
“Just knowing that this is my last go-round of playing college football, I feel like I’ve got a lot to prove this year,” Johnson said. “And just trying to make sure I don’t take no days for granted and just work every day.”
A redshirt senior, Johnson has seen a lot during his time in Columbia. From the boycotts and Gary Pinkel’s retirement during a freshman season cut short by a fall camp injury to Barry Odom’s disappointing first year as head coach to consecutive bowl berths in 2017 and 2018, Johnson has ridden quite the wave at Missouri.
Now, as the longest-tenured receiver on the Tigers’ roster, Johnson has become a role model of sorts for the younger players in the receiving corps. Rising stars like Jalen Knox and Dominic Gicinto still look up to Johnson — who the team affectionately refers to as “JJ” — and listen to whatever the elder statesman tells them.
“I just let him say whatever he has to say to me and just take it in and learn from whatever he’s talking about,” Knox said. “I know that he’s a veteran guy and he’s been through five years of this, so he knows more than me when it comes to college football.”
Johnson hasn’t always been among the most highly-regarded receivers on the roster, with a chunk of Missouri’s fan base constantly questioning how much of an offensive leader he could actually be. Perhaps there’s some substance to those claims, as dropped passes came around more often than he would’ve liked, but he’s always been a steadily improving, consistent presence on the field, and that shouldn’t change in 2019.
Like the rest of his teammates, Johnson has been preparing for the unusual environment he’ll find in Laramie, Wyoming, on Saturday. From focusing on controlling his breathing to drinking beet juice, Johnson has been taking the advice his coaches and trainers have given him.
The environment, though, is just another obstacle to Johnson. He might’ve been training a little differently the past couple of weeks, but that doesn’t change what he’s there to do: play football.
“As far as the altitude and how they say that you’re going to have to breathe different up there, I mean that’s one part of going up there is making sure my body is good, making sure I’m drinking enough water, I’m hydrated,” Johnson said. “But other than that, it’s a football game.”
Johnson probably isn’t the first name that pops into the heads of Tiger fans when they think of the all-time great Missouri receivers. With names like Danario Alexander, L’Damian Washington and Jeremy Maclin filling up Missouri’s record books, Johnson’s name often gets lost in the shuffle.
But make no mistake about it, Johnson will have his shot at greatness.
With 124 total receptions in his career, Johnson is almost certainly a lock to crack the top 10 by season’s end. The same goes for receiving touchdowns, where Johnson (who’s currently tied for 10th with 13) could move into a tie for fifth by just matching the five he had in 2018.
Then there’s the big one: Johnson has a chance to become the program’s all-time leader in receiving yards, as he sits 883 yards shy of breaking Alexander’s career record. However slim that chance is — his single-season-high is only 737 — even just matching his career 49.9 yards-per-game average this season would vault him into the top four.
And although the record isn’t his main priority, it’s still there for him to think about.
“It’s on my mind, but I’m really just going out there and playing for my team,” Johnson said. “Just making sure I give the best effort for my team and making sure that we can come out with wins.”
No matter what’s potentially ahead at the end of the season, Johnson’s focus is on game No. 1.
Missouri has put a ton of effort into preparing for what could be a special season — postseason ban or no postseason ban — and Johnson hasn’t gone about it any differently. He knows the offense will change somewhat, especially with a new quarterback under center in Kelly Bryant. Having played with a gunslinger like Drew Lock for the entirety of his college career, Johnson’s own game might have to change a bit to compliment the dual-threat abilities of Bryant.
But either way, Johnson isn’t about to let his last season-opener go by without giving anything less than the best.
“JJ, he loves football, so he takes this stuff seriously.” Knox said. “He’s not going to come out there and put some BS onto the tape, so you know we’re going to get the best version of JJ on Saturday.”