Brandon Johnson did a lousy job of easing back into his Tennessee football career.
The fifth-year senior hauled in three catches for 73 yards and arguably produced the two most impactful plays during Saturday night's 31-27 opening victory at South Carolina. Johnson's 30-yard reception during the first quarter ignited the Volunteers, who were already down 7-0 after South Carolina's opening 11-play, 75-yard touchdown march, while his 33-yard catch in the fourth quarter stymied momentum for the Gamecocks, who had turned a 21-7 deficit into a 24-24 tie with 10 minutes remaining.
"It feels great knowing I can help my team, and that's really what it's all about," Johnson said Tuesday afternoon on a Zoom call. "I want to help my team win — no more, no less — and it's the reason why I'm still here."
Johnson made the decision last year to redshirt after four games to protect a year of eligibility, which is a rule the NCAA implemented before the 2018 season. Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings had become the primary targets for Jarrett Guarantano, so the 6-foot-2, 203-pounder from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, elected to shelve his season having made just two catches for 31 yards.
His performance inside Williams-Brice Stadium last weekend was his busiest against a Southeastern Conference foe with the exception of the six-catch, 107-yard showing in the 2017 finale against Vanderbilt.
"It was really exciting to see him come out there and having fun and making plays," fellow senior receiver Josh Palmer said. "Brandon Johnson has been making plays all fall camp, and he just showed everybody what he can do. Brandon comes out and gives 100% every day, and we feed off that."
Said Johnson: "It was kind of a sigh of relief knowing that I made the correct decision, because it was a difficult decision."
Johnson's first significant catch was a one-handed grab at the South Carolina 42-yard line that helped set up a 1-yard run by Guarantano that pulled the Vols even at 7-7.
"I lost the ball for a little bit in the lights," Johnson said. "I lost it for a second, but it finally came back down, and I found it. I was able to get a hand on it, and that's it."
The catch was fourth on ESPN SportsCenter's top 10 plays of the day, which has earned Johnson some attention. Yet he was quick to credit the throw by Guarantano, who admitted Saturday night to some good and bad passes in his 19-of-31, 259-yard showing.
"I love JG, and I could not have caught that ball if hadn't placed it where he placed it," Johnson said. "That was a perfectly thrown ball, and I've got all the faith in the world in JG. I'm so proud of him and how far he's come since he first got here, and I can't wait to see him keep going.
"We all know that we can play a lot better than we did. We're hungry to come back out and make a big improvement."
Johnson's 33-yard catch in the fourth quarter was followed by a 32-yard scoring strike from Guarantano to Palmer that put the Vols up 31-24 and ultimately served as the deciding score.
The No. 21 Vols will try to display that improvement when they host Missouri at noon Saturday (SEC Network). Guarantano threw for a staggering 415 yards in last season's 24-20 win against the Tigers, and Palmer (124), Jennings (115) and Callaway (110) each went over 100 yards.
Now it's Johnson who expects to be a top target after his successful return to action.
"Brandon is a guy who didn't missed any reps in camp," Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt said. "He was at every practice. He's a guy who has some experience to him as a fifth-year guy who has graduated, so it doesn't surprise me. I think Brandon can play every position, and he's also a good special teams player. He's an instinctive guy, and he's a good leader among the group.
"Anything that Brandon does doesn't surprise me."