Huskies' James Johnson rebounds from sophomore slump
Junior receiver learned from injuries, now a leader for Huskies.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Arizona @ UW, 7:30 p.m., ROOT Sports
James Johnson2011: 25 catches, 314 yards, 12.6 average, 3 TDs
2010: 1 catch, 3 yards, 3.0 average, 0 TDs
2009: 39 catches, 422 yards, 10.8 average, 3 TDs
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If he could change a thing about last season, Washington receiver James Johnson says he wouldn't.
That might sound odd considering that, on paper, 2010 was about as bad a season as he could have had. Battling a high ankle sprain, an illness and a sophomore slump, Johnson caught a single pass for 3 yards, after having made 39 receptions as a freshman in 2009.
Yet Johnson insists he's better because of those struggles.
"It was an experience that needed to happen," he said. "I am who I am today because of the experience last year."
And who Johnson is today is not only one of UW's most productive receivers — he's third on the team with 25 catches for 314 yards — but also one of the team's leaders.
"In his preparation, how he watches film, comes up in the office all the time, he's the leader of the (receiving) group right now unquestioned," said receivers coach Jimmie Dougherty.
Johnson, a junior from Valley Center, Calif., caught a touchdown pass to end the first drive of the Steve Sarkisian era against Louisiana State in 2009, and had seven receptions two weeks later when the Huskies beat USC, marking himself as a rising star before he'd attended a class at UW.
But he admits he may not have appreciated such early success.
"I'm not going to say I was selfish, but I kind of had a chip on my shoulder," he said. "I thought it was just me doing it and making plays."
Says UW coach Steve Sarkisian: "It was almost too easy for him."
So when the struggles of last season began, Johnson didn't know how to react. And he may not have been as prepared as he could have been, mentally or physically.
"Missing out on the game last year was really hard, and it hurt me," he said. "It was the first time where I never played. And especially dealing with the injuries and not really being 100 percent throughout, as a man I think it helped me grow and understand how to take care of my body and how to prepare film-wise and in being more consistent in my own game."
Talks with coaches and his older brother Greg Taylor — with whom he'd lived since seventh grade — helped turn his frustration into motivation to avoid a repeat.
"It really started in the offseason," Sarkisian said. "He really dedicated himself to the weight room and to being a team guy."
The injuries healed, and Johnson reignited his competitive streak by running indoor track.
Sarkisian said he noticed a difference from the beginning of the season.
"He's playing with amazing effort and enthusiasm," Sarkisian said. "And the passion he brings every day, not only to practice but to game day. He had some injuries and some different things and to fight through that adversity, I think he does really appreciate the opportunities that he gets."
Johnson was a key part of the only two real glimmers in the gloom of Saturday's 65-21 loss at Stanford — Chris Polk's two long touchdown runs in the first half.
Sarkisian says Johnson threw key downfield blocks to spring Polk on each play.
Johnson said he approaches blocking assignments with the same zeal as a pass play.
"I've really learned to be a much better teammate and take myself out of it," he said. "We preach in our locker room to play for the name on the front of your jersey and not the one on the back, and I think that's really helping me."
No longer will he judge his performance by how many catches he made.
"It's not like that anymore," he said. "I'm just out there playing. I want to see everybody succeed. That's always in my mind and my head. I don't really care about stats, I just want to win the game."
He's also embracing the total college experience. A recent talk with former Huskies linebacker Dave Hoffmann, who went on to work in the Secret Service, has him thinking about majoring in Law, Society and Justice so he can work in the FBI.
"I think I have my head in the right place and am headed in the right direction," Johnson said.
• Asked about the criticism being levied at defensive coordinator Nick Holt, Sarkisian said: "Nick has been through this before, and in this profession you've got to take the bad with the good and understand the jobs that we have and the positions that we are in and the criticism that comes from that. And if you don't understand that, then this is the wrong profession for you. You've got to be able to be thick-skinned and you've got to find that even keel, that even space where you never get too high, you never get too low and you enjoy the experience of coming to work every day. And I think Nick is doing that."
Asked if the criticism was unfair, Sarkisian said: "I don't know. You know, we didn't play very well. That's OK. That doesn't mean we can't get better. That's not the end of the world. The sun's going to come up tomorrow, I hope, and we'll get up tomorrow and we'll go back to work."
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