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October 19, 2006

Ga. Tech and Johnson no longer a surprise

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Calvin Johnson is about to return to the place that made him famous.

The last time Georgia Tech visited Clemson, Johnson caught a pair of touchdown passes in the final two minutes as the Yellow Jackets rallied for a 28-24 victory. He finished the night with eight receptions for 127 yards and three scores.

And it was only the second game of his college career.

"That was my coming out," Johnson said. "That's when everybody learned about me."

Two years later, the nation is learning that a wide receiver can contend for a Heisman Trophy and carry a team to conference supremacy.

Johnson scored twice last month in a road upset of Virginia Tech that gave 13th-ranked Georgia Tech (5-1) sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference's Coastal Division.

A similar performance against No. 12 Clemson (6-1) this weekend could make him Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith's main Heisman challenger. That would put Johnson in select company.

The last two wideouts to earn the Heisman Notre Dame's Tim Brown in 1987 and Michigan's Desmond Howard in 1991 won the award as much for their kick-returning ability as their pass-catching skills.

Notre Dame end Leon Hart won the Heisman in 1949, but he also played defense and fullback. The only other receiver to claim college football's most prestigious prize was Yale's Larry Kelley in 1936.

Johnson insists he isn't thinking much about the Heisman, but the 6-foot-5 junior understands why receivers rarely contend for the award.

"The more you have the ball in your hand, the better chance you have of winning it," Johnson said.

Until this season, Johnson never had the ball in his hands enough.

He played in a run-oriented offense whose quarterback had completed less than half his career pass attempts before this season. The best receiver in the nation often spent Saturday afternoons as the game's most high-profile decoy.

Johnson had only six 100-yard receiving games at Georgia Tech before this year. He averaged 51 catches for 863 yards and 6 touchdowns each of his first two seasons.

Georgia Tech is benefiting from making Calvin Johnson more of a focal point in the offense. Here's a look at Johnson's year-by-year production.
Rec-Yds Avg. TDs
2006 35-559

This year he already has 35 catches for 559 yards and eight touchdowns halfway through the season. He has caught 22 passes for 413 yards and five touchdowns in his last three games despite having a sore left quadriceps muscle for much of that stretch.

His remarkable surge in production begs for an explanation.

Is it the strategy of offensive coordinator Patrick Nix, who has found different ways to get Johnson the ball in his first year calling plays?

Is it the progress of quarterback Reggie Ball, who has developed more consistency in his fourth year as a starter?

Or is it the continued improvement of Johnson himself, who admits he is running pass routes far better this year?

"You could say a little bit of all that," Georgia Tech coach Chan Gailey said. "Patrick Nix has done a great job of coming up with some new and better ideas to get him involved in the offense."

Nix's impact on Johnson's performance already has caught the attention of other ACC coaches.

Clemson limited Johnson to four catches for 46 yards in the Yellow Jackets' 10-9 victory last year, but that doesn't make Tigers coach Tommy Bowden particularly comfortable about holding the star receiver in check a second consecutive year.

"I have a lot of confidence in our defensive staff and defensive players,'' Bowden said, "but they've been very creative in finding ways to get him the ball. And that's a concern."

Georgia Tech has figured out more ways to throw Johnson the ball, but ACC defenses still haven't discovered how to prevent him from catching it. He is undoubtedly the conference's most valuable player.

Johnson's leg injury made him a game-time decision against Virginia last month, but he still caught six passes for 165 yards in a 24-7 triumph. His performance that night included a 66-yard grab and a 58-yard reception that resulted in the two longest touchdowns of his career.

One week later, the aching quadriceps muscle again left his status uncertain. Johnson shook off the pain and caught two first-quarter touchdown passes in a 38-27 victory over Virginia Tech.

He followed that up by compiling 10 receptions for 133 yards and a touchdown in a 27-23 win over Maryland.

During this three-game span, Johnson has been responsible for 64.7 percent of the Jackets' catches and 72.8 percent of their passing yards.

His teammates don't mind seeing Johnson play such a large role in the offense. They consider it a welcome development and a major reason why the Jackets have emerged as legitimate ACC title contenders.

"He is the best receiver in the nation," Georgia Tech running back Tashard Choice said, "so having him go out there and catching the ball opens up more things for us on offense because defenses have to play him differently than most."

Georgia Tech's last game illustrated Johnson's impact on the rest of the offense.

Maryland dared to cover Johnson one-on-one until he caught four passes for 53 yards as Georgia Tech scored a touchdown on its opening drive. The Terrapins had to pay more attention to Johnson the rest of the day, which helped Choice rush for a career-high 138 yards.

More importantly, the performances of Johnson and Choice allowed Georgia Tech to remain undefeated in conference play. Although they were picked to finish behind Miami and Virginia Tech in the ACC Coastal Division, the Jackets have their sights set on the conference championship game in Jacksonville, Fla.

"I think about it all the time," Johnson said. "There are two or three big games we have left. All of them are big, but there are several big ones that are going to tell whether we make it to Jacksonville or not."

An appearance in the conference championship game and a possible BCS invitation would allow the entire nation to see the combination of size and speed that already have accorded Johnson legendary status around the ACC.

Johnson began to make a name for himself two years ago at Clemson, when he caught a 37-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter before outleaping defenders for two more scores in the final two minutes.

He has since used his extraordinary athleticism to make numerous highlight-worthy plays so many times that his teammates have learned to expect the unexpected.

"I am not really amazed by him anymore," Georgia Tech defensive tackle Joe Anoai said. "I have seen it all from him. He is the type of player that, as I say this, he might show us something new in this game. That's the type of player that he is."

Johnson may not catch his coaches or teammates off guard anymore, but he has turned Georgia Tech into one of the nation's biggest surprises.

For more coverage of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, check out JacketsOnline.com.

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