Senior receiver Marcus Johnson becomes go-to option in Slippery Rock offense
When all-time leading rusher Shamar Greene suffered a season-ending injury against Cal (Pa.) in the fifth game last season, Slippery Rock coach Shawn Lutz needed to find a new go-to guy on offense.
He turned to then-junior receiver Marcus Johnson.
A University Prep grad who spent his freshman season at Thiel, Johnson’s contributions to that point were modest. Over his sophomore season and the first three weeks of last season (13 games), he caught 17 passes for 277 yards and three touchdowns.
But in the game before Greene’s injury, he caught nine passes for 123 yards and a score, a preview of his impending breakout.
In the six games that followed Cal, he caught 32 passes, including 10 for touchdowns. His final game of 2016 was a 10-catch, 237-yard, four-TD performance against East Stroudsburg.
“It was just an adjustment,” Johnson said about the switch from Division III to D-II. “Everyone has a tough time getting into a new system.”
Johnson officially is into it.
In two games this season, including last week’s upset of then-No. 24 West Chester, Johnson has 17 catches for 331 yards and four touchdowns. Against West Chester he scored on a reception (37 yards), a punt return (47) and a kickoff return (96). He hadn’t returned kicks since his season at Thiel.
“The smartest thing I think I did was put him in the return game to get the ball in his hands a lot more,” Lutz said. “We have to get him as many touches as we can.”
In the season opener, Johnson caught 12 passes for 231 yards and three touchdowns against Kentucky State. For those keeping score at home, that’s three consecutive games with at least three touchdowns.
Johnson possesses all the physical attributes of a great receiver: size (6-foot-2, 190 pounds), jumping ability, sure hands and speed. Lutz and his staff, specifically receivers coach Frank Bongivengo, have helped Johnson improve his route-running, blocking and strength.
But the X-factor, Lutz said, is something that can’t be coached.
“What separates Marcus Johnson as being one of the best receivers — if not the best — in all of Division II football, is when that ball is up in the air, his ball skills are tremendous,” Lutz said. “There might be receivers who are faster than him in the 40, but when you have those 50-50 balls, he gets them all.”
His recent output likely will draw more attention from opposing defenses as they try to devise a way to hinder his production. That’s a challenge for which Johnson said he is ready.
“I’m prepared for anything,” he said. “I try to get a head start and watch film on (the opponent) and see what their DBs do. If they double-team me, that opens up the run game. It’s lose-lose for them.”
There is other, more welcome attention Johnson is receiving. Lutz said the Philadelphia Eagles watched Slippery Rock’s game against West Chester, and the Arizona Cardinals also have shown interest in Johnson.
While Lutz said he believes his stud receiver can play Sundays, Johnson isn’t getting ahead of himself. His first order of business is to help No. 25 Slippery Rock (2-0) win a PSAC title and make a deep playoff run.
“I just like to go out and play the game just like I did when I was little,” Johnson said. “All the other stuff will come along. We’re doing some good things right now, and we’re going to keep doing good things.
“The sky is the limit for us right now.”
And, it would seem, the same is true for Slippery Rock’s go-to guy.
Chuck Curti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @CCurti_Trib.
Chuck Curti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chuck by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .