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No one exemplifies this year’s team like Johnathon Johnson

The senior slot receiver has had a quietly solid career. But his last hurrah could give his image a major boost.

Vanderbilt v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

When you read or hear the words, “last great Mizzou receiver,” who comes to mind?

There are a lot of acceptable answers you could plug into this prompt. Let’s work backward chronologically. Maybe you’re thinking of Emanuel Hall. Sure, his numbers may not be on par with some of the all-time great Tigers, but they’re nothing to sneeze at — he ranks in the Top 10, though not Top 5, in career receiving yards and touchdowns. And throughout his career, it was undeniable; when he was healthy, no one could keep up with him.

Maybe you’re inclined to think J’Mon Moore is an all-time great (if so, welcome to the club!) Moore has two of the best seasons ever by a Tiger receiver and sits in the Top 5 for both career touchdowns and yards. He had a few bad moments in his career, but who doesn’t? The cumulative total is what counts, and Moore was more consistent and deadly than most of his historical peers.

Perhaps L’Damian Washington is more your speed? Or Dorial Green-Beckham, who dazzled fans in his short, trouble-marked career in Columbia? Maybe you’re a stickler who hasn’t seen anyone worthy since Danario Alexander, truly the last undoubtedly “great” Mizzou receiver?

Greatness is a word that frightens fans, because it’s almost always ill-defined. Is greatness marked by memorable moments? Athletic prowess? Statistical records? Team achievement? There’s no clear cut way to measure it, so we often get caught up debating it rather than enjoying the careers of those who may achieve it in front of our very eyes.

Of course, no one exemplifies this pursuit — and the team’s as a whole — more than senior slot receiver Johnathon Johnson. Johnson, as we’ve covered many times on this site, is less than 1,000 yards away from becoming the school’s all-time receiving leader.

That’s no small accomplishment. Imagine a world where Danario Alexander and Justin Gage are looking up at a player always known for his reliability more than his game-breaking ability. Imagine a program with legends like Chase Coffman and Jeremy Maclin, program-defining players in their time, who don’t boast the statistical accomplishments of a player who may never have been the best receiver on his own team.

Much like Missouri, though, Johnson has defined steady, unspectacular improvement over the course of his career. While his yards per catch have dropped every season, his receptions and yards have gone up, just as the team has turned from a run-and-gun, big play machine into an offense just as concerned with managing time as lighting up scoreboards. Oddly enough, the change has coincided with improving records.

Fittingly, Johnson also defines the Barry Odom era in a way no one else can claim, not even the now-NFL-departed Drew Lock, who often outshone his own coach. Johnson’s true freshman season came during the infamous 2015 campaign, though it was cut short in fall camp before he could even see the field. When he returned in Barry Odom’s debut campaign, Johnson represented the future — fast, youthful, unstoppable. And while some of that promise was delivered, Johnson also showed off the shakiness of a new era in every dropped pass or over-excited attempt at juking a defender that ended up costing valuable yardage.

Three years later, though, we’re looking at Johnson in a new, if still uncertain, light. We appreciate him for what he is. He’s steady, familiar and shows flashes of another level of greatness that has seemed out of reach for the past few years.

What if, though, this was the year those flashes became something more? What if the promise of rebuilding and laying a foundation culminates in one breakout season that redefines an era? What if the past three seasons weren’t just teases, but were really the building blocks to something better?

Are we still talking about Johnson or the program as a whole?

As much as we’ve talked about the individual implications of Johnson’s swan song this offseason, his senior campaign also means much more. It represents the difference between an admirable, but forgettable, four-year stretch of football versus the dawning of a new era and the foundational pieces (or should we say players?) that made it possible.