Johnson Beginning to Catch On
By Dylan Barmmer
There is one thing that comes to your attention when you cross paths with Irish wide receiver Malcolm Johnson - the man is very tall.
"I was always the tallest - the tallest and the skinniest," says the 6'5" junior about his youth.
The skinny part is not so applicable now. Johnson has added 20 pounds to his lanky frame since he first stepped foot on campus three years ago, growing from a painfully thin 185 to a chiseled 205. But Malcolm Johnson's body is not all that has grown tremendously since he first donned the Blue and Gold - so has his confidence.
"Coach Holtz makes practice really intense, and if you can't handle it, you're not going to get on the field," says Johnson, whose 331 receiving yards on just 19 catches currently leads the team. "When I came in, I wasn't ready for the pressure. He (Holtz) is going to put a lot of pressure on you so that when game time comes, you'll feel very confident in your abilities. I can say now that I feel that way."
But it wasn't always this way. In fact, just about half a year ago, it wasn't even close. You see, Malcolm Johnson wasn't yet "The Man." In fact, he was something very different. He was Mister Nobody from Nowhere.
"When I took this job back in April, I inherited a bunch of guys who had never really played," says first-year receivers coach Urban Meyer. "Malcolm's name never really came up when people talked about the receivers."
Last spring, Johnson wasn't only an unknown, he was even somewhat of an outcast. Johnson was suspended for several practices by Holtz for violating university rules last spring, and not surprisingly, the suspension was a bitter pill to swallow for the eager would-be receiver.
"It was a bad situation," says Johnson of the suspension. "I learned from it, though. I learned you have to follow the rules, you have to do everything right. I shouldn't have put myself in that position, but things happen, and Coach Holtz isn't going to make any exceptions for anyone on the team."
Holtz didn't make any exceptions for star runner Randy Kinder, who was suspended for the Orange Bowl due to off-field problems, and he certainly wasn't about to make any exceptions for a guy who had logged about as much playing time as Rudy in his Notre Dame career.
"It made him realize that rules are rules," said Holtz of the suspension. "I think Malcolm thought there was a gray area there, but there isn't room for any gray area. I think it also made him realize how much football meant to him."
It also made him realize how much Notre Dame meant to him.
"I think, more than anything, the suspension helped me focus on how much I love the team," said Johnson. "Sometimes it's easy to say 'I don't want this,' and 'I don't need this' and 'I could do better elsewhere,' but being removed from it for awhile helped me realize this is the place for me, and I love this place too much to not try and make my mark here."
And make his mark he has, and more than anyone, possibly including himself, may have expected.
Just in time, too.
"I can't be more pleased with his development," commented Meyer of his suddenly solid receiver, who has made that mark with numbers like a 17.5 yards per catch average. "He's to the point where he really believes in what we're doing. It's staggering what he's done (since fall practices)."
"I felt like it was urgent, that it was now or never," said Johnson of his sudden emergence.
That emergence began immediately this season, when Johnson, whose inconsistent play in practice had left him behind now-starting tailback Autry Denson at the receiver spot, hauled in four receptions for a team-high 69 yards in the Irish's 14-7 win at Vanderbilt.
Two of Johnson's catches came at crucial moments in the eventual game-winning drive of the 'Nashville Nailbiter'. Johnson has been in the starting lineup ever since."I think it was the turning point, at least in Coach Holtz's eyes," said Johnson of his performance in that game. "It just gave him confidence in me. If he feels he can trust you, he'll put the ball in your hands and let you go do your thing. I think playing well in that game helped gain his trust, and I couldn't be happier about that."
Neither could Holtz.
"He's got a great work ethic," said Holtz of his newest weapon. "He's doing a wonderful job."
For as much as Johnson has accomplished so far this season, everyone involved with the football program knows that he has yet to peak.
"He's matured tremendously, and given us a great effort this season," said Holtz. "But his best football's ahead of him."
"He's going to be a great player," mused Meyer. "But if he's going to become a great player, he's got to learn to be a little more physical, and he's got to knock his time (4.56 in the 40) down a little."
"It was just a matter of time before he started contributing," said senior flanker Emmett Mosley, whom Johnson calls the "emotional and spiritual leader" of the Irish receiving corps. "It's his turn to take the torch and run."
Johnson himself feels no differently.
"I'm glad I've been able to step up and put my foot in the door, but really, I feel like I haven't even scratched the surface," says Johnson, who doesn't turn 20 until next August. "I think I waited my turn, and my chance is now."
It took awhile, but Malcolm Johnson is finally where he feels he belongs. He is finally beginning to catch on.