CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Virginia wide receiver Keeon Johnson wishes he would have worked harder after a fast start to his career at Virginia. Instead, he went from having a prominent role in the Cavaliers’ plans to being an afterthought.
Now, in his final season, the 6-foot-3, 215-pounder is trying to make up for lost time.
“After my first year, I kind of didn’t grind as hard as I should have and I kind of got complacent and things like that,” Johnson said. “That can always come back and bite you in the end. That’s one thing I learned from it.”
A coaching change gave him new life, and a resolve to get back to working hard to be at his best. And it has paid off early in the season as Johnson has a team-high 17 catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns.
In each of the previous two seasons, he managed just 13 catches per year.
The Cavaliers (0-3) will look to get their first win on Saturday when they host Central Michigan (3-0). The Chippewas’ victories include a last-play win over then-No. 22 Oklahoma State.
Johnson is eager to get back on the field and continue his career resurrection.
“It feels good. The biggest thing for me is just to have fun,” Johnson said. “It’s my last year. It’s going by way too fast so I just try to make every play, every rep count in practice. From winter workouts in the cold up to camp when it’s hot outside, you don’t feel like doing anything, just try to have fun with it.”
Defensive end Andrew Brown spoke this week of players who he thought were “in the shadows” the last few seasons, all but forgotten by the coaching staff, even after making some contributions on the field. Seeing some of them like Johnson and pass-rushing specialist Mark Hall get back in the mix, Brown said, has been uplifting to everyone.
“Now I feel like this coaching staff is exposing them, finally,” Brown said.
Johnson, particularly, seems to have become one of quarterback Kurt Benkert’s go-to receivers. As Virginia tried to rally last week in a 13-10 loss at Connecticut, Benkert hit Johnson for 34 yards on a fourth-down pass.
The rally came up short when the Cavaliers missed a rushed short field goal attempt on the final play. Despite the winless start, Johnson, like many of his teammates, insists the confidence and winning attitude that new coach Bronco Mendenhall is working to instill gains momentum each week.
“I think everybody’s even more focused than they were,” Johnson said. “You can see it throughout each week. We get closer and closer and everybody, they get hungrier and hungrier throughout the week. We have practice tonight and tomorrow morning we’re back at it and everybody should be full speed, running around. There’s no negative energy at all. Everybody still has high spirits and up, so that’s one positive about the whole situation.”
Another is Johnson getting a second chance.
“My first year I was getting the ball a lot, but it came to the point where we were running a lot more than we would throw,” he said. Now, in practice, “We’re throwing the ball a ton of times. It’s more reps with me catching the ball and with other receivers as well. Just being able to get those mental reps and all the reps in practice, come game time it becomes easy.”
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