It’s impossible to miss Collin Johnson. The 6-6 rookie stands out, towering over those around him…yet for the first 11 weeks of the Jacksonville Jaguars season, he was left largely in the shadows.
The Jaguars receiver corps is top-heavy, with DJ Chark and Keelan Cole demanding a giant portion of the in-game snaps. Chris Conley and Laviska Shenault split time in their own respective roles as well. In addition to running back James Robinson becoming a primary focus of the offense, the rookie Johnson was a victim of one ball and not enough to go around.
“We’ve been trying to get him on the field a little bit more. With both DJ [Chark Jr.] and Chris [Conley], it’s been hard to get him out there, get him the reps,” explained Jaguars Offensive Coordinator Jay Gruden.
On Sunday against the Cleveland Browns though, with Chark and Conley both out nursing injuries, Johnson had an opportunity to prove he deserves more looking moving forward.
“He definitely stepped up his game, which is great to see,” added Gruden.
“To see him step up in those guys’ absence was great to see. So sure, I think we’ll check to see how Chris is doing in practice [Wednesday], same with DJ, but we won’t hesitate to get [Collin] in there if it plays out like that.”
In Chark and Conley’s absence, Johnson was a part of 80% of the offensive snaps on Sunday. He finished with four receptions for a team-high 96 receiving yards and a touchdown.
“With [DJ] Chark being down, [Chris] Conley being down, the next man up,” said Johnson on Sunday.
“We can’t have a drop off so it’s all about picking up where the older guys left off and continuing to not have a drop off. Like I said, so me and Laviska [Shenault], we made some plays today, but we have to continue to get better and learn from the film and just go from there.”
There will be lessons from the film, things Gruden wants to see the Texas Longhorns alum work on moving forward; but the coaching staff also saw the manifestation of raw skills flashed in practice and in limited reps in earlier games.
“He definitely has a straight-line speed that you like to see. I think we’ve been working with his routes. Coming in and out of breaks I think has been something he’s been working diligently on for the last 10, 12, 15, 20 weeks or what have you, so he’s continuing to work that. [Wide Receivers Coach] Keenan McCardell’s doing a great job with him.
"As far as finding the hole, he has a natural feel. He’s a smart kid, has a good feel for the game of football, so that’s not the issue. I think [it’s] more so man-to-man releases, coming in and out of breaks. He’s a big, tall, long guy so that sometimes is something he has to continue to work on, but we love his skill set. I think as a young football player you can see what type of career he may have if he continues to work.”
The straight-line speed, as Gruden called it, has been one of the most pleasantly surprising aspects of the rookie’s game. On his 46-yard touchdown from quarterback Mike Glennon in the second quarter, the speedometer on the video board clocked him at just under 20-miles per hour. The combination of his height and burst make Johnson an ideal target. As his game continues to grow, so should those targets.
Said Glennon on Sunday of Johnson, “He’s a big target, he’s easy to find, and there’s not many receivers in the NFL that are his height – I don’t even know if there’s any. He had a great game. That touchdown I threw – I didn’t know he had that kind of burst. I figured it was going to be a big completion. The next thing you know he turns a corner and takes it to the house. He had a really good game.”
Perhaps the best testament to Johnson’s future though was how quickly he and Glennon found a chemistry that clicked versus the Browns. Glennon was starting his first game this season for the Jaguars. And that only happened, according to Johnson, because of his refusal to waste practice time.
“So in practice often times Mike will go with the scout team and I‘ll help out with the scout team as well. It’s easy to just think that’s not a live rep, but you approach it with it’s an opportunity to get work in and that you’re building chemistry in practice.
“When our number is called in the game, I feel like it shows. You just have to take every rep in practice serious whether you’re going with the ones, twos, scout team or whatever and I feel like that’s what we were doing.”
The established chemistry possibly created one of the few missteps between the two; Glennon’s tenancy to look for Johnson meant he attempted a two-point conversion attempt late in the game when Johnson was surrounded by a gaggle of Browns defenders, creating a nearly impossible catch that unsurprisingly didn’t work.
Regardless, the trust and skills were an enticing first look at Collin Johnson, warranting increased opportunity and responsibility. DJ Chark and Chris Conley are both expected to return on Sunday. As such, Collin Johnson’s snap count will likely decrease again as the ball is spread around. But it won't be the last his big impact is seen on the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“I’m the type of guy that’s just going to always work whenever my number is called,” said Johnson.
“I’m going to do my best and I’m very confident that when I get more opportunities like today, I take advantage of them. I’m just going to be ready when my number is called.”