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July 23, 2006
A late-bloomer but a good catch
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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson was catching fly balls long before he started catching footballs.
Growing up in Georgia just as the Atlanta Braves were beginning their string of 14 straight division titles, Johnson began his athletic career as a center fielder on his childhood baseball teams.
Johnson didn't start playing football seriously until at least seventh grade. By the time Johnson entered high school, he had a new favorite sport.
"I was pretty decent at baseball," Johnson said Sunday at the Atlantic Coast Conference media days, "but I was more comfortable playing football."
He now spends Saturdays making opposing defensive backs feel very uncomfortable.
The Rivals.com preseason All-American enters the season as a legitimate candidate to win the Biletnikoff Award that goes to the nation's top receiver. His 6-foot-5 frame and 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash make him virtually impossible to defend.
"There's no way to describe what he can do," Georgia Tech defensive tackle Joe Anoai said. "I don't think there's any limits to the numbers he can put up. He can dominate any corner in the world, to tell you the truth."
Johnson's statistics don't necessarily back that up.
The junior wideout caught 54 passes for 888 yards and six touchdowns last year. Those numbers aren't bad, but they don't compare to the prodigious statistics collected by other All-America candidates such as Southern California's Dwayne Jarrett and Notre Dame's Jeff Samardzija.
Johnson probably at least could match the production of those guys if he played at a different school that didn't emphasize the running game and feature a quarterback – Reggie Ball – who has completed less than half his career passes. As it is, Johnson has accounted for 40 percent of Georgia Tech's passing yards the last two years.
If Johnson ever wonders what he could have accomplished at a different school, he isn't letting it show.
He hasn't expressed any regrets about his decision to play at Georgia Tech, which was close enough to his Tyrone, Ga., home to allow his family to attend his games.
Johnson said he rarely watches Jarrett and Samardzija because they often play at the same time as Georgia Tech. And he doesn't consider the Yellow Jackets' season opener with Notre Dame a chance to show he's a better player than Samardzija.
"I don't really think about that stuff at all," Johnson said.
Johnson's attitude doesn't surprise Rodney Walker, who coached the All-America candidate at Sandy Creek (Ga.) High.
Walker remembers only one instance in which he had to warn Johnson about his behavior.
"He had a long touchdown and kind of jogged across the goal line," Walker said. "I thought he showboated a little bit, and I said that to him. The next time he ran in on a full sprint. That's the kind of guy he is. Calvin wasn't going to show anybody up. He wasn't a guy who was going to celebrate. His character is just impeccable."
If Johnson's humility prevents him from declaring himself one of the nation's best receivers, his teammates and opponents are willing to do that for him. They've been well aware of Johnson's talents ever since he introduced himself to the Atlantic Coast Conference two years ago by catching eight passes for 127 yards and three touchdowns – including the game-winner with 11 seconds remaining – in a 28-24 triumph at Clemson.
Johnson's ACC foes realize that his mere presence makes an impact on a game even when he doesn't have 100 receiving yards. His ability as a blocker and a decoy helped Georgia Tech finish third in the Atlantic Coast Conference in rushing offense last year.
"You've just got to do your absolute best to try and contain him because he does so many things well," Virginia cornerback Marcus Hamilton said. "Even when he's not catching the ball, if a running back's running behind him, he's so strong he can block you."
That strength also makes him a nightmarish assignment for smaller defensive backs.
"Physically there's no one who can play the game like him," Anoai said. "He's huge. He's strong. That's the thing. A lot of people don't know how strong he is. When you have a small corner on him, one sweep of his hand can really put him out of position. You give him a step, and in a second he can turn that step into three."
Defensive backs often respond by putting their hands on Johnson, who has drawn 16 pass interference and defensive holding penalties over the last two years, including four in a 14-7 loss to Georgia last season.
Johnson still had a touchdown catch in that game to continue his tradition of delivering in Georgia Tech's biggest games. Johnson also reached the end zone against Virginia Tech each of the last two years, scored a touchdown in last year's season-opening victory over Auburn and caught six passes for 89 yards in a victory over Miami last fall.
His ability to overcome constant double coverage against some of the nation's top defenses prove Johnson's value. Even though he isn't likely to have an 80-catch, 1,500-yard season as long as he's at Georgia Tech, Johnson remains a certain first-round draft pick.
So he really has no need to second-guess his decision to stay close to home.
"Those people at the next level, they look at his talent and they know who he is," Walker said. "I think he's right where he ought to be."
He enjoys playing for Georgia Tech. Most of all, he enjoys playing football.
The guy who grew up playing baseball now says he prefers watching football or golf whenever he's sitting in front of the television.
Does he ever get a baseball and still play catch?
"Only (with) the ones that are hit over the baseball field and onto our practice field," Johnson said.
For more coverage of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, check out JacketsOnLine.com.