UK freshman wide receiver's versatility, preparation making an impression

broberts@herald-leader.comAugust 10, 2014 

As soon as Garrett Johnson wrapped up his senior season of high school football, he turned his full attention to being a Kentucky Wildcat.

While his classmates at West Orange High in Winter Garden, Fla., ate lunch and gossiped in the cafeteria, Johnson was preparing for his future in Lexington.

The 5-foot-11 wide receiver got hold of UK's offensive plays, and he wrote each of them down on a notepad that he would bring to school every day. At lunchtime, he enlisted one of his friends to call out those plays. Johnson would have to correctly respond with his assignment, and then they would move on to the next one.

Away from school, Johnson worked the phones. He texted UK wide receiver Jeff Badet — a friend and former 7-on-7 teammate — just about every day and regularly called UK coaches with questions about the Wildcats' offense.

"I was trying to get an edge," Johnson said. "As soon as I finished with my high school season, I was trying to do anything I could to get an edge. So when I got up here it made everything so much smoother."

Johnson is one of five wide receivers in UK's freshman class, but he was often the most overlooked during the 2014 recruiting cycle. Blake Bone and Dorian Baker had the four-star rankings and the great size the Wildcats have been looking for. Thaddeus Snodgrass and T.V. Williams enrolled at UK in January and went through spring practice.

But Johnson has been one of the most-talked-about young receivers in UK's corps so far this fall. Much of the buzz is centered on his knowledge of the offense.

"Once he signed, he was calling me, wanting to know what to do on this play and sending me videos and wanting to know what he did wrong on this route," said wide receivers coach Tommy Mainord. "Just a really mature kid that really has a lot of ambition to get in there and help us. Not just play, but be in there and be a difference-maker as soon as possible.

"As a coach, that's as good as it gets. That's a home run for us when you have someone who's really eager and is wanting to come to you all the time."

Offensive coordinator Neal Brown also has been complimentary of the newcomer after the first few practices of fall camp. Johnson is lining up in the slot, and Brown has noted that UK will need some help in that area.

Johnson's appeal isn't limited to his mental approach. The new Cat has skills, too.

When asked to name the receiver that has made the most eye-popping plays so far this fall, Baker was the player whom the UK freshmen singled out.

But when Baker was asked the same question, he went with Johnson.

"Garrett Johnson has definitely been making some plays," he said. "He's quick off the line. His speed definitely matches him. When he's up on the line, a lot of linebackers are checking him, and he's able to sweep past them so easily. He's definitely going to make a lot of great plays.

"The man is so good. He's so versatile. He can play anything, really. He can go outside, inside. His route-running is so nice."

Mainord also mentioned Johnson's versatility, saying the Florida native is actually "the more all-purpose receiver" of the freshmen. He's playing primarily in the slot but has the skills to move outside if that's where UK needs him in the future.

Bone and tight end Darryl Long praised Johnson for his route-running, and Bone noted his "wheels" coming off the line of scrimmage. To a man, the UK freshmen have been just as impressed with Johnson's ability on the field as his knowledge off of it.

Johnson calls it "bringing the juice," which left some players — including freshman quarterback Drew Barker — looking for an explanation of what their new teammate was talking about.

"He's always like, 'I got the juice!' And I'm like, 'Bro, what's juice?' Barker said. "And he's like, 'You know — the juice!'

"I was just like, 'What the heck?'" the QB said, shaking his head.

Johnson gave a couple of reporters his definition of "juice" during Friday's Media Day.

"To explain juice: Juice on the field means me just making plays and being a playmaker," he said. "Me making my team better, being a team player and doing anything to win."

The "juice" can also be found away from the football field.

"He's smooth, he's cool, he's real laid back," Barker said. "He's probably the best dressed on the team. He's always gotta have a fresh hair cut. He's always gotta have the bling going on, fresh shoes and everything. It takes him about two hours to get ready before he goes out."

Johnson has made the transition from high school to college look easy from a football perspective. The biggest change, he said, doesn't have anything to do with learning plays or lifting weights or catching a football.

The toughest part is life without mom. When asked what he missed most about home, he was quick to mention his mother, Mary, and her home-cooked meals. The thought of her baked chicken, macaroni and baked beans brought the biggest smile of the day. It also elicited an earnest expression of purpose.

"I'm pretty much a mama's boy," he said. "But I know that she raised me well enough to come up here and continue doing everything that she taught me.

"I think I'm handling it pretty well so far."

Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216. Twitter: @NextCats. Blog: ukrecruiting.bloginky.com.

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