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Huskies’ Johnson survives growing pains

Washington wide receiver started fast, but faded at the end of his freshman season

  • Washington wide receiver James Johnson (3) scores on a touchdown pass against LSU last season.

    Jennifer Buchanan / The Herald

    Washington wide receiver James Johnson (3) scores on a touchdown pass against LSU last season.

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By Scott M. Johnson
Herald Writer
  • Washington wide receiver James Johnson (3) scores on a touchdown pass against LSU last season.

    Jennifer Buchanan / The Herald

    Washington wide receiver James Johnson (3) scores on a touchdown pass against LSU last season.

SEATTLE — Let the record show that, technically, James Johnson is still a freshman at the University of Washington.
But the wide receiver certainly feels a lot older, and a lot wiser, than he was last fall and winter.
Like, when he takes the field for the 2010 season, one opponent that he refuses to let slow him down is James Johnson.
Viewed as a freshman phenom for the first half of his first season of college football, Johnson can see now that he let the mental part of the game get to him in the end. After catching a team-high 35 passes in his first eight games, Johnson virtually disappeared down the stretch, catching just four balls for 38 yards in his final four games.
“I kind of felt upset with myself for allowing myself mentally to let things bother me,” he said last week. “But I don’t blame anyone else but myself.”
A series of injuries, including a problematic shoulder that bothered him all season, and college life got the better of Johnson at the midway point of the football season.
“Mentally, I didn’t check out, but it was hard for me to keep my confidence going,” he said. “The nagging injuries, I would be thinking about them when I was getting ready to catch a ball. Just things like that.”
On the surface, Johnson would appear to be the least likely freshman to lose the mental game. He survived a rough environment in South Central Los Angeles, eventually moving in with his older brother outside of San Diego before high school. While going to a private school made up almost exclusively of white students, Johnson blossomed and became one of the most popular kids in school _ and one of its most academically gifted.
He’s as mentally strong as any 18-year-old freshman could be.
But Johnson’s thoughts took him down a different road during the course of his first year of college football. For the first time in as long as he could remember, Johnson found himself questioning whether he could do it.
“I allowed my injuries and the transition to college and school take my mind off what was important, and that’s football,” he said. “Not that school isn’t important; it’s very important. But it was about finding that balance. Coming out of high school, it’s a lot different. Everything’s a lot more fast-paced.”
The initial transition was as seamless as it was for any freshman playing football in the Pac-10 last fall. Johnson caught a touchdown pass on his first reception, eventually finishing with a team-high six receptions in a narrow loss to LSU in UW’s opening game. He followed that with another touchdown in a win over Idaho and had a team-high seven receptions in an upset of third-ranked USC.
At that point, Johnson was the leading receiver on a UW team that had cracked the Top 25 for the first time in almost six years.
“At that time,” he said last week, “I just kept telling myself to get better every day. ... I feel like I did that — for a while.”
Johnson’s numbers steadily declined over the second half of his freshman season. He had just one reception in a loss at Arizona. Just one catch in a loss at UCLA, and one more the following week at Oregon State. In UW’s big Apple Cup win over Washington State, Johnson was held without a reception for the first time as a college football player.
Along the way, older teammates like Jermaine Kearse and Devin Aguilar emerged as quarterback Jake Locker’s go-to guys. The feel-good finish of the Huskies’ 2009 season was certainly worth celebrating, but Johnson had seen his role diminish in the process.
Now, as the Huskies’ work out during their spring season, he’s determined not to let that happen again.
“The focus is to stay consistent all the way through,” he said. “I had a lot of injuries that I felt like shut me down (last fall). My mind, being at such a young age then, I just couldn’t handle it.”
Johnson feels healthy now, both physically and mentally, and he’s eager to push Kearse and Aguilar for playing time.
“Everybody definitely wants to catch the ball, obviously,” he said. “Every day, it’s a constant competition. You have to perform daily and build that trust that you can catch the ball.”
Receivers coach Jimmie Dougherty said that the only surprising thing about Johnson’s loss of confidence last season was that it happened when it did.
“It usually happens sooner for most freshmen,” Dougherty said, “like on the second day of fall camp.
“That’s what was so impressive about him. He came in, and his mind and body were ready to play right away. But the injuries wore him down a little bit. And that’s been a big focal point for him this year.”
Dougherty isn’t concerned at all about how Johnson finished the 2009 season.
“It’s human nature,” he said. “You’re not having the success you’re used to, and then the wear and tear of the season, and he just got a little rattled. His confidence was shaken. It would’ve happened to anybody.
“We’ve worked on that, and we think he’s back — we know he’s back.”
Johnson certainly feels like his confidence is back, but he’s not making any promises about what kind of numbers he’ll put up in the fall.
“I’ll just let the chips fall where they may,” he said. “I’m just going to come out here and work hard every day and let it happen.”
Story tags » Huskies Football

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