JT grad has high hopes at SMU

SMU wide receiver Jeremy Johnson (17) celebrates with wide receiver Darius Johnson (3) after a touchdown against Pittsburgh in the first half of the BBVA Compass Bowl NCAA college football game on Saturday, Jan. 7, 2012, in Birmingham, Ala.

DALLAS — June Jones is famous for a prodigious offensive scheme that cranks out quarterbacks that put up dizzying numbers.

Look at the list of the NCAA’s all-time leading passers and you’ll see two of most prodigious passers in history played under Jones at Hawaii — Timmy Chang and Colt Brennan. Chang, who incidentally threw for more yards than any NCAA quarterback, is now the quarterbacks coach at SMU.

But the quarterback is only part of the equation. Someone has to catch the ball, right?

That’s what former John Tyler standout Jeremy Johnson is hoping as he enters his junior year at SMU.

Receivers have prospered as much as quarterbacks in a June Jones offense, if you look at history. Two Hawaii receivers — Davone Bess and Jason Wright — are among the Top 15 in NCAA history in receptions.

In his two years on the Hilltop, Johnson has learned that the wide receiver must have a unique skill set to thrive in a June Jones offense.

“We have to be able to read the defense just like the quarterback does,” Johnson said. “That’s what our routes are based off of — how the defenses are set up. They can be in a zone, and if a guy is playing you a certain way then that’s how you have to run your route. It’s tough for receivers.

“It’s a lot of fun once you get the hang of it. At first your head is swimming because there’s so much information and you can’t get it all down in one day. But once you do it’s almost like backyard football — you just get open.”

The backyard could be opening up in big ways for Johnson in 2012.

Johnson enters this season with just 17 career receptions, 16 of which came last season as he backed up Cole Beasley, who is trying to make the Dallas Cowboys squad. One game, though, put him on the SMU map. Johnson made his first career start against TCU in the so-called “Battle for the Iron Skillet” game, during which he set career records for receptions (6) and yards (69). He also secured the touchdown catch in overtime that lifted SMU to a stunning 40-33 win over then-nationally ranked TCU.

It’s a moment of pride for Johnson, but he admits he rarely thinks about it anymore. He’s moved on to his next goal, which is to secure a regular starting role in an offense known for producing big passing numbers.

“I played a little here and there,” Johnson said of his first two years. “Coach (Jones) felt I could help the team immediately, so I didn’t redshirt. But right as I got here Beas (Cole Beasley) started really coming on, so I didn’t get much playing time.”

Johnson, who is listed first on the depth chart at the Y receiver, sees changes that leave him hopeful for more playing time. First, SMU received a transfer at quarterback — former Texas starter Garrett Gilbert. Gilbert has two years of eligibility left after graduating from Texas with a degree in sports management, a move that allows him to play immediately. Jones is hopeful that Gilbert’s experience at a BCS program can help stabilize a position that, admittedly, has been a revolving door since he arrived.

The second is Jason Phillips, the new wide receivers coach. Phillips is a disciple of Jones, having played for Jones as a wide receiver during the coach’s NFL days in Detroit and Atlanta. Phillips played in a similar scheme in the late 1980s, the University of Houston’s Run-and-Shoot offense, and Phillips’ career numbers earned him a place on the Southwest Conference’s Team of the 1980s.

Johnson says there is a clear difference between last year and this year when it comes to his position group.

“Coach Phillips doesn’t let us get away with anything,” Johnson said. “If he sees us slip, he’ll get in our face. He played in this offense in the NFL and he’s close to coach Jones, so he can give us ideas of what he did when he played for coach Jones.”

Meanwhile, Phillips has been impressed with Johnson since he arrived. Phillips joined the SMU staff during the offseason after serving in a similar role at his alma mater under Art Briles and, more recently, Kevin Sumlin.

“He has a lot of potential,” Phillips said. “What he has done over his years here and the way he attacked this offseason you can see that he’s a kid that wants to be good. I’m excited about seeing him play this year and seeing if he can take the next step. That’s what he wants and that’s what we’ve been talking about.”

It’s rare to be a part of two resurrection tales in sports, but Johnson has managed to be in the right place at the right time. SMU, of course, is more than 20 years removed from the infamous “Death Penalty,” a result of recruiting and player payment scandals during its Pony Express days. Only in the past three years have the Mustangs returned to a place on the national scene, going to three straight bowl games and a Conference USA championship game in 2010.

But before Johnson went to SMU, he was the quarterback for John Tyler during its resurrection in the post-Allen Wilson era. The year before Johnson took over at quarterback, the Lions went 1-9. When Johnson became the starter the Lions went 6-6 his junior year (2008) and 12-2 his senior year (2009).

That got him noticed by SMU, the one team during the recruiting process that never wavered from him, Johnson said. That made it easy to commit to the Mustangs and then sign.

Being part of a program that is now a Conference USA contender — and will join the Big East Conference in 2013 — means no second guessing, either.

“I think I made the right decision coming here. No regrets,” Johnson said. “(I’m) not really thinking about the Big East. We just want to have a good season this year in Conference USA. I think we can win the conference championship.”

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