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Manny Being Manny
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Slow Start Did Not Derail Johnson's Continued Emergence As Star
And just like that, in three blinks of an eye, Oklahoma's three amigos receiving corps is down to a bowl game, and then one more year.
Juaquin Iglesias, Manuel Johnson and Malcolm Kelly have been in the starting lineup since their freshman season. All were wide-eyed kids in 2005. Now all are seasoned veterans.
Kelly had his big breakout in 2006, catching 62 passes for 993 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Iglesias became a star this season, grabbing 60 for 854 yards and four TDs going into the Fiesta Bowl.
Will next year be the year that Johnson becomes the go-to guy? The way Johnson finished the 2007 season, coupled with the idea that Kelly might try to test his NFL draft stock in the spring, might turn a spotlight on Johnson. Heâ€™s certainly persevered this season and responded in the clutch.
â€śGood for Manny,â€ť said OU offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. â€śHeâ€™s battled through some injuries and a lot of guys have had their days in the limelight, and itâ€™s nice that hereâ€™s a guy thatâ€™s maybe been our most consistent receiver â€” maybe not flashy on some catches â€” but been about as consistent as any of those guys.â€ť
With the West Virginia game still to be played on Jan. 2, Johnson is fourth on the team in receiving with 27 catches, 423 yards and four TDs. In back-to-back games against Baylor and Texas Tech, Johnson caught eight passes for 222 yards and four touchdowns, including scores of 60 and 65 yards. He also had a clutch third-down reception against Missouri in the Big 12 title game that sparked a go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter.
And, Wilson said, â€śManny has also been our best blocker throughout the year.â€ť
So why the slow start?
Johnson had all of five catches through the Soonersâ€™ first five games. Having traded spots with Iglesias (Johnson is in the slot this season, Iglesias moved out wide), Johnson had a mere 26 yards on his first five receptions.
For a third-year player, shouldnâ€™t Johnson have been a more consistent weapon from the outset?
â€śWe thought in two-a-days,â€ť Wilson said, â€śhe was as good as any receiver we had.â€ť
So what happened? Injuries.
Johnson sprained the meniscus cartilage in his knee during the Miami game and decided to play through it. He simply couldnâ€™t run without pain.
â€śIt bothered me for a little bit, but I still played throughout the games,â€ť he said. â€śThe coaches knew, so they kind of held back on some of the plays.â€ť
While Johnsonâ€™s productivity suffered, new quarterback Sam Bradford started to build a rapport with Kelly, Iglesias and tight end Jermaine Gresham.
â€śMalcolm and Juaquin make some great plays down the field,â€ť Johnson said. â€śOur offense has a lot of talent, so I just try to do the little things.â€ť
Johnson is slight for a major-college receiver, standing 5-foot-11 and weighing around 185 pounds. But thatâ€™s after adding 10-12 pounds of muscle during the offseason. Heâ€™s needed every one of those pounds, too.
â€śFrom the slot, you really deal with the safeties a lot more than you deal with the corners, since youâ€™re in there with the safeties,â€ť he said. â€śYou block linebackers and have to work around the linebackers and find little holes in the middle of the field.â€ť
It wasnâ€™t until the Texas game that Johnson had his first statistically sound performance, hauling in three catches for 25 yards. The following week, against Missouri, he caught two balls for 31 yards, including a sweet grab over the middle for 21 yards that showed the flash that earned him 46 catches for 548 yards and four TDs in his first two seasons.
Johnson had begun to get more comfortable in his new inside position, and his knee was feeling better.
â€śMannyâ€™s been very positive,â€ť said head coach Bob Stoops. â€śI think itâ€™s hard sometimes, everybody wants to focus on one guy, but heâ€™s showed heâ€™s every bit that caliber of guy.â€ť
He really began to show it the next week against Iowa State, catching a season-high five passes for 46 yards while the rest of the Sooner offense looked lifeless. Against Texas A&M, he had three grabs for 56 yards.
It was clear then that Manny was being Manny again.
â€śEarly in the year, the safety involvement maybe clouded the middle of the field a little bit,â€ť Wilson said. â€śNow, as weâ€™ve thrown the ball more, weâ€™re getting people playing truer pass coverages.â€ť
Said Stoops, â€śHeâ€™s got in some spaces where our coaches felt heâ€™d have a chance to outrun somebody or make a big play.â€ť
And thatâ€™s exactly what happened the following week against Baylor.
Johnson caught an 11-yard pass in the first quarter, a sideline pattern that set up a later bomb, a 60-yard scoring catch from Bradford deep down the right sideline. He snagged a difficult ball over his right shoulder and tiptoed just inside the paint for his first touchdown since last yearâ€™s Fiesta Bowl.
â€śIt was a great play by Manny running after the catch, tight-roping down the sideline,â€ť Wilson said.
For Johnson, it was nice to find paydirt again, finally.
â€śItâ€™s been a while since Iâ€™ve been in the end zone,â€ť said Johnson afterward.
He ended the Soonersâ€™ next drive with a tough 13-yard touchdown grab in traffic. On OUâ€™s next possession, Johnson ran a deep post and snagged a 42-yard bomb from Bradford on third-and-8.
â€śIt felt real good to finally get some balls down the field so I could go get them,â€ť he said.
The Soonersâ€™ next game, of course, was a sour one. Bradford went out early against Texas Tech with a concussion, and the OU offense couldnâ€™t get rolling until the fourth quarter.
Thatâ€™s when Johnson heated up, getting free on a streak down the sideline for a 65-yard touchdown that sparked backup QB Joey Halzle and the rest of the Sooner offense.
As the OU rally continued, Johnson and Halzle put the Sooners within striking distance on another difficult catch in traffic, a 9-yard touchdown. On two earlier drives, Halzle tried several times to find Johnson.
Suddenly, it was Johnson â€” once the forgotten receiver â€” who was getting all the balls thrown his way.
â€śI hate to say that heâ€™s re-emerging â€” we always have known Manny to be a really good player for us, and heâ€™s a three-year starter,â€ť Stoops said. â€śI think sometimes itâ€™s just opportunities, how people are defending you and where Sam goes with his read. We donâ€™t have just one guy to throw it to. He beats a guy, Sam sees him, bam, thereâ€™s the ball. As much as anything, itâ€™s where he is in the read progression and what coverages people are playing.â€ť
So is Johnson the next big thing in the Sooner passing game?
He caught just 10 passes his freshman year, and although 2006 produced a career-high 36 catches, he averaged just 10 yards per reception. This season, averaging 15.7 yards per grab, heâ€™s become a sure-handed, red-zone, deep-threat weapon.
â€śItâ€™s fun to see him do so well,â€ť Stoops said. â€śHeâ€™s a quality kid and a really good receiver, and heâ€™s really made some huge plays.â€ť
If Kelly does go pro, thatâ€™ll break up this three-man band that has remained remarkably close through the years. They lived together in the Bud Wilkinson freshman dorm, and they lived together in an off-campus house last season. This year, Kelly bought a dog, so he had to get his own place. But Johnson and Iglesias are still roommates, and Kellyâ€™s never gone long.
â€śThose two guys are my brothers,â€ť said Kelly. â€śWe came in together. All three of us are always together now. Iâ€™m always over there playing the Nintento Wii.â€ť
â€śWe always joke around about how weâ€™re brothers together, like best friends,â€ť Iglesias said. â€śThatâ€™s the truth. Manny and Malcolm are the people I spend the most time with, my family away from home.â€ť
Added Johnson, â€śWeâ€™re real close. I think you can ask any of the coaches. Wherever you see one of us, Iâ€™m sure youâ€™ll see the other two not far behind.â€ť
And looking back, the time has flown, for them and for their fans.
(Editor's Note: This story appears in the December Bowl Preview issue of Sooner Spectator. To subscribe, call toll free 1-877-841-8877)