Vols' Brandon Johnson starring in slot receiver role [photos, video]

Vols' Brandon Johnson starring in slot receiver role [photos, video]

September 25th, 2017 by David Cobb in Sports - College

Tennessee receiver Brandon Johnson, center, made seven catches for 123 yards, both career highs, in the Vols' 17-13 defeat of UMass on Saturday in Knoxville. Injuries have forced Johnson to line up in the slot rather than out wide early this season.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

Gallery: Vols manage to hold off winless UMass, 17-13

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KNOXVILLE — Tennessee quarterback Quinten Dormady may have a new favorite target.

At the least, he appears to have identified a steady threat within a young receiving corps that has dealt with its share of lumps early in the season.

Brandon Johnson outdid his statistical output from all of last season in a single afternoon with seven receptions for 123 yards in Tennessee's 17-13 win over Massachusetts on Saturday at Neyland Stadium.

Johnson's performance — a fourth-quarter drop notwithstanding — served as a rare bright spot for an offense that struggled against a winless opponent. It also propelled him to the top of Tennessee's receiving statistics.

The sophomore from Plantation, Fla., has 18 catches for a 205 yards, both team bests this season. He has had at least three catches in each of the first four games.

"Brandon is an individual that, when you think of him, it's consistency every single day in practice in the meetings," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "And he continues to get better and better."

Jones credited Johnson's approach to his father, Charles Johnson. A catcher, he played 12 seasons of Major League Baseball with seven teams, winning the 1997 World Series with the Florida Marlins and twice being voted an All-Star.

Jones has noticed some similarities between father and son.

"He has character," Jones said of Brandon Johnson. "He has competitive character. He understands what it is to prepare. I think that's probably in his upbringing."

Johnson is part of a group of second-year receivers who have been thrust into the spotlight due to a long-term wrist injury to leading returning receiver Jauan Jennings and a shoulder injury that has limited redshirt senior Josh Smith.

Along with an injury to redshirt freshman speedster Latrell Williams, that has forced Johnson from an outside receiver position to the slot. His first game in the role was against Indiana State on Sept. 9. With Hurricane Irma bearing down on his home state, Johnson made four catches for 50 yards and a touchdown.

"The whole movement is pretty smooth, thanks to my teammates and coaches helping me out, especially the guys who have already played in the slot," Johnson said. "They're helping me out a lot."

On Saturday, Dormady found Johnson on seven of his first 10 completions. The highlight was a 66-yard pass that set up a John Kelly touchdown run. But several of their connections came on slant routes.

"He gave us a big spark," Jones said. "I know the one third down on the dig route, we need to catch the football there. But he's an individual who played very sparingly and was injured last year and a part of that young receiving corps. But he made some big plays in some moments that we needed big plays."

The drop on the dig route that Jones mentioned would have resulted in a much-needed first-down completion for backup quarterback Jarrett Guarantano early in the fourth quarter. Johnson said after the game that he could not stop thinking about the play, even though he had plenty of good moments to reflect on after posting career highs in catches and yards.

That commitment to craft is part of what Jones likes about the young receiver.

"He understands what it is to be driven," Jones said, "and the way you've got to work every single day."

Contact David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com.