To understand Garrett Johnson’s frustrations from a few months ago, one needs to go back to his high school cafeteria in Florida.
It was there in the West Orange lunchroom that Kentucky’s soon-to-be wide receiver would spend his breaks memorizing the routes and the plays for his future school’s offense.
At nights, he’d text his friend Jeff Badet, who already was a wide-out at UK, to ask specific questions about alignments and assignments.
“I was trying to get an edge,” Johnson explained in 2014. “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.”
The problem is, nothing is ever smooth, not even for the player who takes pride in his preparation and unending film study.
Now a junior wide receiver, Johnson is on his third offensive coordinator in as many seasons. These newest ones, Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw, are not running some variation of the Air Raid offense, the one for which Johnson had memorized every nuance.
So this spring under a new offense and new coaches, Johnson struggled at times.
Those coaches openly questioned his commitment, his leadership.
“I told him in the spring I thought he was a follower,” new wide receivers coach Lamar Thomas said of Johnson, who led the team in receiving yards last season with 694 on 46 catches with two scores.
It bothered Johnson.
“I could sense it a little bit,” his good friend and UK defensive back Blake McClain said of Johnson’s frustrations. “But he’s a strong-minded individual and he tried not to let it get to him.”
But it did get to him.
“I’ve got to be honest, it took a toll on me,” Johnson said in August.
Then Johnson did what Johnson has always done: “I took it upon myself to dial in, dig in more and just get more work.”
The wide receiver spent his Saturdays this summer in the indoor facility running routes and working non-stop with quarterback Drew Barker.
“So not just mental reps, but being out there physically running the routes,” he explained. “It makes it way easier. Just coming out here and getting the extra work.”
Part of the difficulty for Johnson with the new offense was its flexibility, especially for the wide receivers.
While so many plays in the previous offenses were black and white, this offense offered 50 shades of gray for a wide receiver.
He’s had to adjust to that, too.
“The coaching, just knowing what they want,” he said of the differences. “That may be the hardest part. A route is a route. You see it on paper and you know how to do that, but the way the coaches want certain things to be ran, the flexibility and everything. That was probably the hardest part.”
He had to figure out this offense, the way he obsessively figured out the Air Raid offense.
And once that happened, a light came on for him.
“Night and day,” Gran said of Johnson from spring practices to the end of fall camp. “He’s playing faster, making plays. Exactly what we need from him. … He worked his tail off. I remember on Saturdays he’d be in the indoor facility. He was working extra. So, he earned what he’s getting right now.”
What he got Saturday in the loss to Southern Miss was six catches for 143 yards and two touchdowns.
He also takes a ton of confidence in himself and the new offense into The Swamp, a place where he put on a show two seasons ago as a true freshman. In his last go in Gainesville, Fla., Johnson had six catches for 154 yards and two scores.
Football is back to being fun for Johnson.
The freedom of the new offense is something he’s starting to enjoy.
And now he’s bringing other players along, said Thomas, the coach who called out Johnson for being a follower just a few short months ago.
“He’s stepping up and becoming a guy in the room that’s becoming a leader,” Thomas said. “He’s definitely becoming a guy out here on the field, he’s pointing guys in the right direction.
“You can tell he’s put the time in to learn the offense and it means something to him. Most importantly, he’s just having fun out here and he’s enjoying it now.”
Kentucky at Florida
When: 3:30 p.m.