With little fanfare, Johnathon Johnson already ranks tenth in Missouri history in receiving yards. Johnson — a redshirt senior — finished his third season of playing time with 1,896 yards, moving ahead of Jared Perry (1,844 yards) into the eleventh spot.
Now, Johnson is looking up at players like Emanuel Hall (2,016), T.J. Moe (2,101), William Franklin (2,125) and Martin Rucker (2,175) to get into the top half of the top ten.
It’s a remarkable run for Johnson, considering his offer and commitment to Missouri didn’t even occur until late in the 2015 recruiting class. It was Barry Odom, then recently hired as Missouri’s defensive coordinator, who convinced Gary Pinkel to offer and accept the commitment of the three-star slot receiver from Memphis’ Melrose High School.
At that point, Johnson had eight other offers, headlined by Tennessee, Louisville and Purdue.
Was he an unknown commodity? No, clearly his offer list shows he was on the radar of Power 5 programs, at least regionally. His emergence as a reliable receiver — he hasn’t missed a game in each of the last three years — isn’t a complete surprise. Now he’s within distance of setting a school record at a position where, especially recently, it’s had some of its brightest starts,
Can he get there? Let’s take a look.
Johnathon Johnson’s pursuit of 883
Eight-hundred eighty-three yards would allow Johnson to pass Danario Alexander’s current school mark of 2,778. The bulk of that mark came in one season for Alexander, when he put up 1,781 yards in 2009 (yet somehow was not a Biletnikoff Award finalist, but no, I’m not bitter about that).
Johnson’s pursuit of the record has been much more piecemeal. He’s averaged 632 yards and 41 receptions a year, but his top season was in 2018 where he finished with 59 catches and 737 yards.
So, to break the record, Johnson is going to need to put together his best season in his last chance. Missouri has had some prodigious receivers in the last ten years, but a receiver finishing above 883 yards for the Tigers in the span is not so common.
It’s happened seven times in the last ten seasons. In 2013, two receivers had at least that number of receiving yards (L’Damian Washington, Dorial Green-Beckham). Four seasons in the last decade have not produced a receiver with that many yards.
Comparing past seasons and offenses to the 2019 version isn’t apples-to-apples; really, we only need to look to last season and the returning talent to figure out how realistic Johnson’s shot is.
Again, Johnson had 59 catches for 737 yards, averaging 12.5 yards per catch. His yards-per-reception have dropped in each of his years at Missouri. So, if we can surmise that Derek Dooley’s offense will look relatively similar to last year, Johnson would need 71 catches at that YPC average to break the record.
That’s certainly doable, considering that Missouri lost its No. 1 receiver (Emanuel Hall). Johnson has already had an extended period of time without Hall alongside him, however — a five-game stretch from Georgia through Kentucky in 2018. He finished with 16 catches for 217 yards in those Hall-less games ( 3.2 receptions, 43.4 yards per game).
So Johnson will either need to become the main attraction in the 2019 passing game, or he’ll need someone else to step up and free up space underneath. There are some guesses about who could fill that latter role (Johnathan Nance, Jalen Knox), but no one is a sure-thing like a healthy Hall.
What about Kelly Bryant? The quarterback play will probably play the biggest role. In Bryant’s one full season as a starter for Clemson, Deon Cain led those Tigers with 734 yards; Hunter Renfrow (a good comparison for Johnson) led the team with 60 receptions. Three receivers had at least 49 receptions, but none of those averaged over 12.7 yards-per-reception.
Then there was Bryant’s performance in the spring game, and really, the overall play of the quarterbacks can probably tell us a little bit about which receiver position the ball will flow through this year. In that scrimmage, the first offense — quarterbacked by Bryant and Taylor Powell — completed ten passes to slot receivers Barrett Bannister and Dom Gicinto (Johnson didn’t play) out of 37 attempts.
If that ratio holds true this season and Bryant averages as many attempts per game as he did in 2017 (33), then Missouri’s slot receiver position would average just under nine receptions per game. That would be spread over two or three receivers though (Johnson, Bannister, Gicinto). Making a generous estimate, let’s say Johnson averages six receptions a game in 2019. That would put him at 72 catches over a 12-game season (no bowl, at this point). If he averages 12.5 YPC, Johnson would finish with 900 receiving yards and break Missouri’s career record.
Doesn’t seem too outrageous, does it?
But, there are some factors that would limit Johnson’s ability to amass those numbers. The biggest one — outside of poor play — is the run game. If Larry Rountree, Tyler Badie, Simi Bakare and Bryant himself find great succes on the ground, then those passing attempts could drop. The return to health for Albert Owuegbunam would also cut into those numbers, as the tight ends didn’t receive much attention in the spring game. Finally, game control itself could dictate Johnson’s pursuit. If Missouri is playing from behind a lot, there will likely be more attempts and more chances. But with Missouri appearing pretty balanced on offense, that might not be likely.
As long as Johnson stays healthy in 2019, he’ll be on the radar to break Alexander’s school record. It will likely be close, but even without a bowl game and with a new quarterback, Johnson should still have a decent shot to become the new record-holder in Columbia.