Johnson Beginning to Catch On

By Dylan Barmmer

There is one thing that comes to your attention when you crosspaths with Irish wide receiver Malcolm Johnson – the man is verytall.

“I was always the tallest – the tallest and the skinniest,”says the 6’5” junior about his youth.

The skinny part is not so applicable now. Johnson has added20 pounds to his lanky frame since he first stepped foot oncampus three years ago, growing from a painfully thin 185 to achiseled 205. But Malcolm Johnson’s body is not all that hasgrown tremendously since he first donned the Blue and Gold – sohas his confidence.

“Coach Holtz makes practice really intense, and if you can’thandle it, you’re not going to get on the field,” says Johnson,whose 331 receiving yards on just 19 catches currently leads theteam. “When I came in, I wasn’t ready for the pressure. He(Holtz) is going to put a lot of pressure on you so that whengame time comes, you’ll feel very confident in your abilities. Ican say now that I feel that way.”

But it wasn’t always this way. In fact, just about half ayear ago, it wasn’t even close. You see, Malcolm Johnson wasn’tyet “The Man.” In fact, he was something very different. He wasMister Nobody from Nowhere.

“When I took this job back in April, I inherited a bunch ofguys who had never really played,” says first-year receiverscoach Urban Meyer. “Malcolm’s name never really came up whenpeople talked about the receivers.”

Last spring, Johnson wasn’t only an unknown, he was evensomewhat of an outcast. Johnson was suspended for severalpractices by Holtz for violating university rules last spring,and not surprisingly, the suspension was a bitter pill toswallow for the eager would-be receiver.

“It was a bad situation,” says Johnson of the suspension. “Ilearned from it, though. I learned you have to follow the rules,you have to do everything right. I shouldn’t have put myself inthat position, but things happen, and Coach Holtz isn’t going tomake any exceptions for anyone on the team.”

Holtz didn’t make any exceptions for star runner RandyKinder, who was suspended for the Orange Bowl due to off-fieldproblems, and he certainly wasn’t about to make any exceptionsfor a guy who had logged about as much playing time as Rudy inhis Notre Dame career.

“It made him realize that rules are rules,” said Holtz of thesuspension. “I think Malcolm thought there was a gray areathere, but there isn’t room for any gray area. I think it alsomade him realize how much football meant to him.”

It also made him realize how much Notre Dame meant to him.

“I think, more than anything, the suspension helped me focus onhow much I love the team,” said Johnson. “Sometimes it’s easy tosay ‘I don’t want this,’ and ‘I don’t need this’ and ‘I could dobetter elsewhere,’ but being removed from it for awhile helpedme realize this is the place for me, and I love this place toomuch to not try and make my mark here.”

And make his mark he has, and more than anyone, possiblyincluding himself, may have expected.

Just in time, too.

“I can’t be more pleased with his development,” commentedMeyer of his suddenly solid receiver, who has made that markwith numbers like a 17.5 yards per catch average. “He’s to thepoint where he really believes in what we’re doing. It’sstaggering what he’s done (since fall practices).”

“I felt like it was urgent, that it was now or never,” saidJohnson of his sudden emergence.

That emergence began immediately this season, when Johnson,whose inconsistent play in practice had left him behindnow-starting tailback Autry Denson at the receiver spot, hauledin four receptions for a team-high 69 yards in the Irish’s 14-7win at Vanderbilt.

Two of Johnson’s catches came at crucial moments in theeventual game-winning drive of the ‘Nashville Nailbiter’.Johnson has been in the starting lineup ever since.

“I think it was the turning point, at least in Coach Holtz’seyes,” said Johnson of his performance in that game. “It justgave him confidence in me. If he feels he can trust you, he’llput the ball in your hands and let you go do your thing. I thinkplaying well in that game helped gain his trust, and I couldn’tbe happier about that.”

Neither could Holtz.

“He’s got a great work ethic,” said Holtz of his newestweapon. “He’s doing a wonderful job.”

For as much as Johnson has accomplished so far this season,everyone involved with the football program knows that he hasyet to peak.

“He’s matured tremendously, and given us a greateffort this season,” said Holtz. “But his best football’s aheadof him.”

“He’s going to be a great player,” mused Meyer. “But ifhe’s going to become a great player, he’s got to learn to be alittle more physical, and he’s got to knock his time (4.56 inthe 40) down a little.”

“It was just a matter of time before hestarted contributing,” said senior flanker Emmett Mosley, whomJohnson calls the “emotional and spiritual leader” of the Irishreceiving corps. “It’s his turn to take the torch and run.”

Johnson himself feels no differently.

“I’m glad I’ve been able to step up and put my foot in thedoor, but really, I feel like I haven’t even scratched thesurface,” says Johnson, who doesn’t turn 20 until next August.”I think I waited my turn, and my chance is now.”

It took awhile, but Malcolm Johnson is finally where he feelshe belongs. He is finally beginning to catch on.