The last time Kenny Johnson played in a football game, he fended off a Maryland defender and hauled in a 31-yard over-the-shoulder touchdown to give Pennsylvania the win in the annual Big 33 game.
It was Johnson’s ninth and final grab of the night, finishing his Big 33 performance with 161 yards (17.9 yards per catch) and the game-winning touchdown. And the offensive MVP, of course.
“He’s a special player, that kid can ball,” Pennsylvania’s Big 33 head coach Mike Farr said following the game. “Pitt is getting a great athlete.”
That was on May 28. In a little over two and a half months since, Johnson has moved to Pittsburgh, begun his college career at Pitt and emerged as a young wideout who could be relied upon as an actual contributor in 2023. He’s making it hard for the coaching staff to keep him off the field right now.
“Kenny Johnson had (a deep ball catch during the scrimmage),” Pat Narduzzi said before practice Tuesday. “Kenny Johnson always has one. I forgot about him, but he always has one. Kenny is separating himself.”
True freshmen WRs making plays 👀
— Pitt Football (@Pitt_FB) August 9, 2023
Who is he separating himself from? His fellow true freshman wide receivers. And that’s serious praise. If you’re down at Pitt’s summer practice, just look around and there’s a good chance that you’ll see either Johnson, Lamar Seymore, Zion Fowler-El or Izzy Polk make a play. Whether it’s Tiquan Underwood shouting out praise or flashy social media highlights, the freshmen have been noticeable.
The praise from the coaching staff and teammates alike has been constant. Like, every single day of practice. The true freshmen wide receivers are legit.
“One of those freshmen is going to play for us, maybe two,” Narduzzi said at Pitt’s media day. “I don’t know which one it’s going to be, but they’re going to play this season for us. There’s that competition.”
Johnson is certainly competing. He made a great adjustment on the catch above, but perhaps his best catch of the summer — one of many, it seems — came on a deep go ball from Christian Veilleux.
“Kenny Johnson made a great diving catch on a go ball,” Veilleux said earlier this month. “So, it’s starting to click with the young guys. Our young receiving corps looks really good, so we completed a couple of those deep balls.”
Johnson himself wasn’t able to remember which quarterback threw up the ball on the go route, but he remembered what he’s been taught all summer. It’s drive, drive, drive. Making sure to dig out of his release and be there as an easy target for whoever is throwing the football. It wasn’t an easy catch for Johnson, but he made sure to be that easy target. Throw it up, and he’s there.
“I saw the ball going over, and I was like, ‘Shoot, I can’t just run under this. I’m gonna have to dive.’ It was good defense, it was still great defense, just better offense,” Johnson said earlier this month.
He dove, got his hands out to haul in the nicely thrown ball and kept possession through the ground. Of course, he impressed just about every coach on the staff in the process.
“I think you can see that Kenny Johnson is a special, special wide receiver and person,” Frank Cignetti Jr. said after practice Thursday. “You look at the scrimmage the other day, he’s very explosive. He’s fast, he’s a big-time playmaker.”
At 6-foot-1, 190 pounds, Johnson is well-built. He’s fast, strong and explosive. There isn’t much not to like. He dominated at Dallastown High School and capped off his high school career by beating the best of the best in Maryland in the Big 33 game. If there’s one singular drawback right now, it’s that he’s only been in Pittsburgh for a couple of months.
And that’s exactly what Tiquan Underwood, who was a major factor in landing him over the likes of Cincinnati, Penn State, Rutgers, West Virginia and Virginia Tech, has preached since he arrived over the summer.
“Just because I came in so late, I’ve got to be on the playbook, I need to be able to know what I’m doing,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m making plays if I don’t know what I’m doing.”
The quarterbacks, older guys like Veilleux, Phil Jurkovec and Nate Yarnell, have been a huge help as he’s integrated to the college level, but he’s formed a close bond with his fellow wide receivers, too. Bub Means and Konata Mumpfield have served as mentors on and off the field, but he’s grown close with all three freshmen wideouts.
He lives with Polk right now, so they’re obviously very close, but he’s gotten closer and closer with Seymore and Fowler-El as they’ve worked together on and off the field.
The work between the quarterbacks and the wide receivers, all the quarterbacks and wide receivers, has been a huge help. The demands of camp have slowed down the frequency of before and after practice throwing sessions, but those sessions were taking place three to four times a week before — and will continue in the future.
Those sessions help someone like Johnson as he brings what he’s been taught in the classroom and what he’s watched in the film room onto the field itself. It’s about repetition now for Johnson, stacking the work in the film room, in the classroom and on the field — before, during and after practice.
Johnson has earned praise from around the facility, from coaches and teammates alike, but he’s just locking in where he’s supposed to be. Paying attention to the details on and off the field, making sure he has the playbook memorized like the back of his hand and getting in that extra work that he needs whenever possible.
“And it’s a great thing to be seen and not heard,” Johnson admitted.
Behind the likes of Mumpfield, Means and Daejon Reynolds, there will be a freshman wideout or two. Johnson has been good, maybe the best so far, but he’s not alone. Fowler-El, Seymore and Polk have impressed throughout camp. Seymore and Polk have the advantage of being around in the spring even. And Che Nwabuko is someone whose speed is beginning to flash in all phases.
Johnson is well aware of what’s at stake throughout the back half of the summer, and he’s just focused on continuing to do what’s gotten him this far. I mean, it’s worked pretty well so far, right?
“It’s a mentality thing at the end of the day, like I know there’s a lot of young guys, and I know there are some veterans, so I’m trying to take all that I can from the vets and learn from the young guys as well,” Johnson said. “There’s definitely an edge to it.”