Washington wide receiver James Johnson ready for fun season
After a 2010 season marred by injury, Johnson has looked healthier, stronger and happier than ever in Huskies camp. And he's having fun again.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Last season, whenever the topic of sophomore wide receiver James Johnson's health was addressed, Steve Sarkisian's tone was a combination of frustration and concern.
After an intriguing freshman year when Johnson played his best in Washington's biggest games — a touchdown catch in the opener against Louisiana State; seven snags in the upset of USC; and a huge 37-yard late-game grab at Notre Dame — his future looked dazzlingly bright.
Sure, he dropped some balls. Name a freshman who doesn't. But Johnson was a playmaker, and in the first season of head coach Sarkisian's regime, Washington was hungry for playmakers.
Johnson finished his first season with 39 receptions and three touchdowns. A smart, thoughtful player, he was becoming one of the new program's freshest faces, somebody to build around.
Then, 2010 happened.
First, there was a high ankle sprain, and then there was an illness. Sarkisian couldn't get his prime-time receiver on the field, couldn't get him healthy, couldn't use Johnson when he needed him most.
Johnson played in just seven games, caught one pass, gained 3 yards. Talk about a sophomore jinx.
"Obviously, it was very frustrating," Johnson said after a recent practice. "I got a little injured and I didn't know how to bounce back from that mentally. I wasn't having fun at all last year, because I was very bitter about the situation that I was in. It was hard for me not feeling healthy. It was one thing with the ankle injury, then I come back and then I get sick.
"Camp is a huge time when you have to compete for your spot, and last year I was hurt and I just got upset. We have great receivers here. You miss a couple of days and somebody will pass you up just like that. That's what happened. That was my frustration, and I allowed that to affect my game. It was just an unfortunate year."
At the end of another optimistic practice, the sun just beginning to drop behind Husky Stadium, Johnson looked healthier, stronger and happier than ever. He caught a touchdown pass during the practice. Life was good again.
"He has a lot of confidence right now," junior cornerback Desmond Trufant said. "He's out here making plays. James is a hard worker. I know last year was tough for him, but he's a very strong-willed person. He's going to bounce back and he's out here proving it."
The competition is fierce. Washington is loaded at receiver with Jermaine Kearse, Devin Aguilar, Cody Bruns, Kevin Smith, Kasen Williams and Johnson.
"Me not playing was strictly a reflection on me and my (lack of) production," Johnson said. "I would never blame anyone else — no coaches, no players. I'm a lot older now. I understand the game a lot more. I'm very comfortable. I'm lovin' being out here. I'm getting a great opportunity and I'm doing my best to take advantage of it. I'm having a lot of fun now."
The idea of having fun has become a theme for Johnson.
"He's kind of getting back to what we're used to seeing with him," Sarkisian said. "I want to see James having fun and playing football the way he's capable of."
Maybe success came too quickly, too easily for Johnson. Last season was sobering. It was the first football adversity of his life. It almost buried him.
"I think freshmen have a tendency to take things for granted sometimes, and maybe he did get humbled at times last year," receivers coach Jimmie Dougherty said. "But I don't think James got full of himself. He just had the adversity and it kind of snowballed on him."
This past winter, Johnson's approach to the game was more mature. Dougherty calls him one of the better guys at understanding the position and route-running.
As part of his offseason rehabilitation Johnson ran track. He dropped his 40 time from 4.7 to 4.4. He got more flexible, got stronger, became more disciplined.
"Last year I was frustrated for him. I hurt for him," Dougherty said. "He kind of struggled all year to get back to that form he had his freshman year. To his credit, and really no surprise to us as coaches, he's battled back. You can't find a better kid, a better character guy."
In Johnson's battle between good fortune and bad fortune, good fortune is winning in a rout. He's back on the field, back making plays and, most important, back having fun again.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
email@example.com | 206-464-2176
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