Johnathon Johnson has the innate ability to squarely focus on what’s directly in front of him, even as minuscule as on a step-by-step basis when running a route.
The Missouri redshirt senior slot receiver is in the final stretch of his collegiate career and wants to make every moment count over the next couple months.
Part of that pursuit is to be the veteran leader those around Johnson have come to expect, proven by his performance in last week’s win over Mississippi.
Johnson, who made his first start at punt returner this season, fumbled the ball right back to Ole Miss on his first attempt and wasn’t given another opportunity with the punt-return squad.
“After I dropped that punt, I just knew I had to make some plays to try to get myself going,” Johnson said.
“After the muffed punt, you could just tell he was fine,” Missouri quarterback Kelly Bryant added. “Of course he didn't want to make it, but he wasn't down on himself. He was ready to go play and he had a really great day.”
Johnson was Bryant’s preferred target against the Rebels — catching eight passes for 110 yards, Johnson’s highest total of the season.
That yardage brings Johnson closer to reaching an individual goal: becoming Missouri’s all-time receiving yards leader. Johnson entered the year No. 11 in program history at 1,896 yards — needing 883 yards to topple Danario Alexander’s top spot at 2,778 yards.
Johnson’s current season total of 275 yards boosts him to seventh on the list at 2,171 all-time yards.
Last Saturday alone, Johnson leapfrogged players such as T.J. Moe to vault up the standings from No. 10 to No. 7 with his best performance of the season.
Johnson stands 607 yards shy of the record with six guaranteed games remaining this season.
“It would mean the world to me,” Johnson said of the possibility of breaking the record. “I obviously came here to be a great receiver in this offense, and for me, if I was able to break the record, to be the best receiver in Mizzou history, it would mean a lot to me.”
Johnson didn’t even know he was within striking distance until this past offseason. He was on social media when someone messaged him telling him about his stats. Johnson thought the fan had the wrong guy.
After a tiny bit of digging, Johnson realized that statement was accurate. It snuck up on him.
Even after the truth was revealed, he hasn’t kept tally of where he stands. Johnson admitted that as much as the record would mean to him, he probably wouldn’t know his place in the Tiger record books until after he secured it.
“I try not to think about the record and kind of get my mind going in the right direction,” Johnson said. “So I just try and stay focused and just try to make every play that I can make when I'm in the game.”
In between Johnson and Alexander on the all-time receiving list are some Missouri legends such as Jeremy Maclin, J’Mon Moore and Chase Coffman.
The second-highest-ranked current Tiger is tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, who is in 34th place.
Getting to the record will be difficult as Bryant has plenty of teammates to choose from when throwing the ball. Six Tigers have at least 191 receiving yards this season, and nine MU players have caught at least six passes.
“We need everybody. We just don't have this one guy and we throw it to him every time,” Missouri offensive coordinator Derek Dooley said. “We need everybody to contribute. We’re going to lean on everybody, and they've done a great job of really being a tight-knit, supportive group of each other. They've worked really hard, pushed each other. They celebrate each other's success.”
Dooley said the offense’s motto is “heart speed,” meaning that each Tiger displays spirit, effort and toughness.
After a less-than-ideal start against Ole Miss, as well as a second-half kick return miscue when he downed the ball at the MU 2, Johnson showed his version of that moniker.
“I think he had a really good game,” Odom said of Johnson’s performance against the Rebels. “He had obviously the fumbled punt, that's not good, the kick return, I'm putting that on myself and our staff because he thought he made a fair catch, so he wasn't clear on what the rule was. So that’s our fault.
“But he was very productive, made plays, made crucial plays, and he's a tremendous competitor that’s a veteran. You can lean on him. He's not going to get too down if something doesn't go his way. He has a tough spirit about himself.”
Johnson has built his reputation at Missouri by never relaxing in the offseason. This past winter and spring, he was tweaking the little details of his game.
That wasn’t to get closer to the record. That was to be the best version of himself so his senior year could be as prosperous for the Tigers as possible.
“He’s not your guy that’s going to stand out to you by just looking at him,” Bryant said of Johnson. “But once he gets the ball in his hands, he's just like magic, he can make things happen for you and he knows it. He's a veteran guy, a smart player, a high-energy guy, a guy you want to have on your offense and is going to give you confidence as a passer and as a quarterback.”
Heading into Missouri’s matchup at Vanderbilt, Johnson said he believes the Tigers are scratching the surface of what their potential is.
With Johnson trying to work his way around opposing defenses, the Tigers feel confident about their chances.
And that’s whether he breaks the all-time receiving record or not.
“JJ has been excellent,” Missouri offensive lineman Yasir Durant said. “He's always been, but this is the same old JJ. He's reliable, comes up with big catches when you don't think that nobody is going to be there. He just comes in and grabs it. He's been excellent this season.”