A year ago, Justin Johnson was one of the top wide receiver prospects in Alabama and even helped his home state win the 2014 Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Classic by hauling in the game-winning touchdown on the final play of the contest.
After Johnson arrived at Mississippi State in the summer, the former three-star receiver began to pack on pounds at a rapid rate thanks to the Bulldogs’ strength program.
It wasn’t long until coach Dan Mullen approached Johnson with the proposition to move to tight end.
“During the summer I kind of grew into a tight end’s body,” Johnson said. “Coach started asking me what I thought about changing positions. As a receiver coming in, I didn’t want to move so soon. But he kept asking me and I saw that I was growing pretty fast. I started thinking about it and saw that it was possible.”
It proved to be a positive step for Johnson. He played immediately as a true freshman, appearing in 11 games and catching five passes for 41 yards and a touchdown.
On his debut drive in the season opener at Southern Miss, Johnson grabbed a 12-yard pass from Dak Prescott and would later cap off the possession with a 5-yard touchdown.
“I thank God for that opportunity and it was sweet,” Johnson said. “It was one of those things that you wish on. After the game, I had every social media thing you can think of contacting me from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, phone calls, texts and voicemails. It was wild but I had a long ride to look at all of them.”
But as much as Johnson has developed since his arrival in Starkville, he is also quick to credit his Hoover High School staff for helping him have a quick transition to the Southeastern Conference.
“It’s the SEC and it’s different,” Johnson said. “But the preparation during the week that I learned from my high school has helped me. Football is taken pretty serious at my high school and go about it the same way most Division I colleges do things from iPads to study sessions and practices. I wasn’t caught off guard when I got here with how busy we are.”
Johnson garnered scholarship offers from Kentucky, Southern Miss, UAB and Western Kentucky during the recruiting process but is content with his college choice.
“I have been very happy here,” Johnson said. “I’ve been pleased with the coaches and how they go about turning us into men and SEC players. Being here has taught me that I don’t have any limits. I’ve learned how to strain and that I have more in me that I can do.”
One of the role models Johnson has to look up to is another Johnson and a former MSU tight end, Malcolm Johnson. Both were high school wide receivers who transitioned to tight end once they got to college.
Malcolm Johnson was drafted by the Cleveland Browns last year before Justin Johnson arrived on campus but hopes that the program will one day send him on a similar path.
“I’ve never really had a chance to just sit down and talk to Malcolm,” Justin Johnson said. “But I know of him and what he did for this program. It gives me hope and it’s interesting to see if they can do the same things for me that they did for him.”