Tyler JOhnson: Path to the NFL Draft
At the end of the 2018 College Football season, Tyler Johnson was faced with a decision. NFL Draft eligible, he could head to the NFL or he could return to finish what he started with the Minnesota Gophers. His decision to return for his senior year was the first chapter in an incredible story for the 2019 Gophers. One year later he heads to the 2020 NFL Draft with just about every school receiving record you could think of. However, for him, football is more than just about records.
“You go out there and have fun. That’s pretty much what it’s all about, right? You go out there and you wanna make memories.”
Tyler Johnson: The Randy Moss of Minneapolis
Tyler Johnson has been making football memories since he first found a love of the game. The early 2000’s was a golden time to be a child growing up in Minneapolis, with the likes of Randy Moss providing the early inspiration.
“Growing up watching great players play the game, I got into football when I was like 8 or 9 years old. Ever since I’ve been able to build strong relationships that will last a lifetime. At the same time, I get to have fun doing what I love to do. I was a big Randy Moss fan. His love for the game, his passion for the game, his ability to make plays. He was like a freak of nature. I always loved him going out there and making plays, and I always pictured myself being able to do the same thing when I was young.”
Some years later, Tyler Johnson would be making the same highlight reel catches as a wide receiver that his hero Randy Moss would make.
Quarterback star at North High School
Before that, however, he would excel at North High School, Minneapolis from the quarterback position. During his time at North he had over 4,500 passing yards and over 50 touchdowns. Johnson also showcased his athletic ability with nearly 2000 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns on the ground. During his senior year, he helped guide North to a Minnesota State Championship appearance.
“We ending up losing that game but it was a great experience though, because, every year we got better and better. We knew one day we were going to have our opportunity to showcase the state what we were about. It took a long time, but the year after they ended up winning the state. It was great to a part of that run.”
At North he began to build relationships, learn the game, and find the fun in football.
“Growing up I played against a lot of my teammates that I played with in college. It was competitive. It was cool to talk about all those memories we had when we were kids playing against each other. Playing ball here was amazing. Being able to showcase your talents day in and day out. It was a blessing. Basically, just going out and having fun, day in and out. That’s exactly what I did. I was able to go out there and do what I loved, with the people that I loved.”
There's no place like home for Tyler Johnson
Those relationships would help provide the destination for the next step on the path to the NFL Draft. As a 3* recruit out of North, Tyler Johnson had offers from several schools including Wisconsin and Iowa but there was truly no place like home.
“The recruiting process was hard, like everybody else I’m sure would say. I would say with all that, it was pretty much like “who do I feel the most comfortable at?” and I felt comfortable at the University of Minnesota. Teammates were able to recruit me pretty much. That’s why I fell in love with the spot. I liked the coaches and the current players that they had there as well.”
Tyler Johnson was recruited to the University of Minnesota as a dual threat quarterback. In order to contribute to the team as quickly as possible in his freshman season, he became a threat elsewhere on the field.
“Came in as a quarterback, but like everybody knows things changed down the road. I wanted to help contribute to my team as fast as possible and that’s why I ended up switching over to play receiver. It wasn’t hard, it was just another learning opportunity. I was learning everyday different things about the receiver world. Whether that’s reading coverages or trying figure out how to create separation. It’s very important that you study the game and you find different creative ways to make that happen.”
Being a student of the game of football is something that Tyler Johnson prides himself on.
“I’m going to continue to just learn the game of football. Study it over and over. I continue to work on being the best possible player I can be.”
Making a difficult decision at the end of 2018
He made an immediate contribution in 2016 with his first career touchdown, before improving again in 2017 with 677 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns. Then came the breakout year in 2018.
Tyler Johnson had the first of his 1000 receiving yard seasons, adding another 12 touchdowns to his resume. His performances earned him the Minnesota Gophers Team MVP award and saw him named to the All-Big Ten First Team. At the end of that season would come the decision of whether to return of declare for the 2019 NFL Draft.
“I made the decision by thinking about my future, pretty much. I felt like there was more than I needed to do as a player to feel comfortable with myself. On top of that, I wanted to get my degree. That’s pretty much what it all came down to. I had a lot to work on. It was a close decision. Thinking back on it, and looking back on it today, I feel like I made the best decision.”
Magical year for Minnesota and Tyler Johnson
It was a decision that worked out perfectly for both player and program. Tyler Johnson racked up career high receptions (86), receiving yards (1318), and touchdowns (13) as Minnesota embarked on a magical journey under head coach PJ Fleck. The Gophers went undefeated through nine games and ended with an 11-2 record and an Outback Bowl win over Auburn.
“It’s been an amazing feeling. To not only talk about it years ago, what we envisioned our program to look like, but actually putting it together and making it happen is something that really makes it special. I’m blessed to have been a part of it, blessed for the guys that I shared the locker room with. Coach Fleck is amazing, man. Very energetic. He allows his players to see a bright vision that he has for his team. We bought into the culture and we made these special things happen. That’s definitely something that I’m proud to say I’m a part of. That program is going to continue to improve and I’m excited to see where it’s going.”
Team success outweighs individual honours
Tyler Johnson leaves Minnesota with a laundry list of individual school records including for receiving yards (3305), 100-yard games (16), and touchdowns (33). In his final game for the program, the Outback Bowl against Auburn, he set the school record for receiving yards in a bowl game. It also happened to be his career high for single game receptions (12) and receiving yards (204).
The reaction to the suggestion that the Auburn game was the best game of his career speaks volumes about his approach to the game, and to his teammates.
“I feel like the reason I was able to do what I did in that game was because all my teammates did their job too. I couldn’t have done that alone. Coach put me in the right situation, each and every time he possibly could. The quarterback and the lineman made the plays happen. I’m not sure I would consider it the best game of my career but one of my favourite moments would have to be that, just because of the outcome of the game.”
Within the Auburn game was one of the best touchdown catches we saw in the whole of college football in 2019. A one handed catch, with one foot treading the thin line between in and out of bounds at the back of the end zone. Surely that has to rank as the best catch of his college career?
“I’d say it’s up there for sure.”
"There is nobody that is perfect"
After making the decision to return to Minnesota at the start of 2019, Tyler Johnson had been quoted as saying “There’s nothing I’m top level at. It’s pretty much everything I need to work on, route running, catching, speed.” After his performances during the 2019 season, it would be fair to say he improved in all aspects. Despite this, he continues his mantra of learning and getting better everyday as he heads towards the NFL Draft.
“I improved in a lot, but I still have a lot to work on. I’m gonna work on everything day in and day out because there is nobody that is perfect, and you want to get as close to perfect as possible. I’m gonna continue to work, day in and day out, and I will never be satisfied.”
Although there are areas to work on, he identifies his three best traits as a wide receiver.
“Being able to create separation. Being able to attack the ball. Ability to make plays.”
Shrine Bowl and NFL Combine invites
It’s those abilities, combined with the numbers that Tyler Johnson has put up during his career at Minnesota, that earned him an invite to the East West Shrine Bowl. Whilst some members of the football media felt like he’d been snubbed by the Senior Bowl, Johnson himself saw the invite very differently.
“It was an honour to be invited. There are a lot of players across the country that don’t get that opportunity. I never felt like I was snubbed, I wouldn’t say that. I was just more focused on what was going on in my life and what I feel like is important to me.”
As well as the Shrine Bowl invite, Johnson received an NFL Combine invite. Despite saving his athletic tests for his Minnesota Pro Day, which would unfortunately be cancelled, he impressed during the on-field drills and felt comfortable in the meetings that he held with teams.
“It was a blessing. It’s everything that you dream for as a kid. Just to be a part of it, be around those great guys, that was a great moment to share with them as we’re all going through the same thing. It was a great week.”
The journey doesn't stop with the NFL Draft
It’s just three weeks to go until the start of the 2020 NFL Draft. Tyler Johnson has worked hard for success at every step on his path to the NFL Draft. The kid from Minneapolis has adapted, he’s learnt, he’s made lasting relationships, and he’s had fun every step of the way.
He also knows that being drafted to the NFL isn’t the end of his journey, it’s just the start of another.
“It’s something that I’ve wished for as a kid, something I prayed for. The journey doesn’t stop there though. Now it’s on to bigger and better things.”
OLIVER HODGKINSON IS A COLLEGE FOOTBALL WRITER FOR THE TOUCHDOWN. HE ALSO WRITES ON THE NFL FOR THE PRO FOOTBALL NETWORK. YOU CAN HEAR HIS OPINIONS ON ALL THINGS COLLEGE FOOTBALL AS ONE THIRD OF THE COLLEGE CHAPS PODCAST.
Feature Image Credit: Aaron Lavinsky /Star Tribune
Huge thanks to Tyler Johnson for taking the time to speak to us.
Also to Case Donahue at the Institute For Athletes for connecting us.