“Woooooooo, I’m really excited to play such a big team,” Isaiah Johnson said of Houston’s imminent colossus of a matchup with Oklahoma.
The redshirt sophomore rocks back in his stance and lets the enthusiasm roll out like a red carpet at a Hollywood movie premiere as we talk just inside the doors of the UH Athletics/Alumni Center.
He has just finished another grueling practice of fall camp in the pouring rain. And in August, Mother Nature fires up the Texas blast furnace and shovels wave after wave of heat onto the players while it rains — even at 9 a.m.
The result is humidity so thick you need a wedge snowplow to cut your way through it.
He’s dripping with sweat and would probably rather be stripping off his soaking pads than pausing inside the northeast entrance of the facility to talk, but he flashes an easy going smile anyway.
Johnson is listed at 6-foot-4 but like athletes on rosters from high school to the pros, he’s probably not as tall as advertised.
But his speed?
That’s for real. He blew the doors off the Cougars’ spring game.
Try 15 catches, 292 yards and three touchdowns. Yes, it was just a spring game, but one of those grabs went 90 yards for a score
“I think his greatest strength is his ability to take the top off the coverage,” receivers coach Darrell Wyatt said. “We’ve got some physical, big outside receivers but they do not necessarily possess the long range speed that he has.”
Johnson came to Houston from Rudder High School in Bryan, Texas. He redshirted in 2014 and played minimal snaps last season as elder statesmen Demarcus Ayers, Chance Allen and Steven Dunbar led the way.
This year, Ayers is with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Allen, Dunbar and Linell Bonner are now the most experienced pass catchers on the UH roster.
Behind them, a logjam of young talent awaits the opportunity to break out. Johnson flashed streaks of brilliance in the spring game, but reading between the lines of his statements and Wyatt’s, he needs to prove himself on a consistent basis in practice before he can crack the starting lineup.
“That’s still to be determined,” Johnson said of his role this season. “I just want to help out the team as best I can. Whatever they need me to do, I’ll come in and do that. Right now I’m just learning from the leaders and the older guys, trying to make plays here and there whenever they need me.”
He spent the offseason “in and out of the playbook” to perfect his timing, routes and quarterback reads.
“He’s just like the rest of the guys, working to be consistent, working to be a great player every day,” Wyatt said. “He’s certainly had his moments. He’s a guy who we’re really counting on for explosive plays.”
Wyatt knows the tools when he sees them. He has coached receivers at Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and the Minnesota Vikings, among others, in his 26-year career. His instant description of Johnson is the prototype of the model wideout:
“Incredible athletic skills. A very long guy with very good feet, which is rare. Most guys with length are not blessed with the short-area quickness that he possesses.
It makes him really good at the line of scrimmage versus bump and run coverage. It makes him a really good receiver in terms of his ability to separate away from man to man coverage and getting in and out of cuts.”
Now it’s just a matter of “putting it all together,” Wyatt said.
If Johnson doesn’t, it will not be for lack of effort in fall camp. Scroll through some press clippings and you’ll find no shortage of references to the intensity of this year’s preseason practices.
“To anybody who’s been paying attention to the media, it’s the hardest training camp in college football and rightfully so,” Johnson said “We take a lot of pride in it. It’s very tough mentally and physically. We come out every day working, getting better and better and better.”
The primary goal of the hard work, Johnson says, is a conference championship. But long before the Cougars have the chance to solidify a berth in that game, there’s the little matter of the AdvoCare Texas Kickoff Classic versus one of the royal families of college football to attend to.
“It’s gonna be a big one,” Johnson says. “To have everybody in Houston at the game, a lot of support, it’ll be good for us, but —“
Here he pauses, perhaps ready to say more, and then he pulls back and flashes the smile again. You can almost see the images racing through his mind behind eyes that have suddenly brightened.
Maybe they’re of a wild celebration at midfield after defeating Oklahoma. Maybe not.
He just grins.
“It should be interesting.”