TAMPA — Tom Lachermeier was convinced Tyler Johnson didn’t actually read anything at all during zone-read plays.
The North Community (Minn.) High School quarterback wouldn’t lock eyes with defensive ends. He just received the snap and started running. It became something Lachermeier, the quarterbacks coach, joked about with Johnson, who didn’t necessarily need to see where linemen went. The now-Bucs receiver could maneuver around them regardless.
But one day, Johnson uncovered a photo taken during a zone-read play and messaged it to Lachermeier. “Look at my eyes,” Lachermeier recalled Johnson typing. “They’re right on the D-end.”
Johnson played quarterback in high school because he was a “magician” and North’s most athletic player, head coach Charles Adams III said. Over time, he learned the intricacies of the position — like executing zone-read plays properly — to complement natural abilities, and he underwent a similar transition at Minnesota after the coaching staff sensed his 6-foot-2 frame could excel as a receiver.
That turned Johnson into an All-Big Ten wideout who set 22 program records. The early stages of his NFL career have featured a handful of highs — like an acrobatic catch against the Saints during their January 2021 playoff game — and the low of beginning last season’s training camp out of shape, something he called his “own fault.” This camp, though, he has generated compliments from head coach Todd Bowles and No. 1 receiver Mike Evans, validating his approach “to be a professional.”
“My mindset has just been control what I can control, knowing that we’ve got a big group in the receiver room,” Johnson said. “Just got to take advantage of the opportunity that comes my way.”
When Johnson started at Minnesota, he first needed to understand the position. That meant learning more about route running, dropping his hips, getting in and out of breaks and using quick changes of direction. His basketball instincts from high school — Lachermeier and Adams said Johnson could “jump out of the gym” — helped challenge defensive backs for high passes, and that’s what he thrived on early.
That advantage materialized during the first game of his college career against Oregon State, according to Brian Anderson, his 2016 wide receivers coach at Minnesota. Johnson caught three passes for 31 yards, but growing pains still surfaced. One play, he was supposed to run a corner route. Instead, he ran an under. That led to another Minnesota receiver getting “blown up” by a linebacker.
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Outside of practice, Anderson showed Johnson and Minnesota’s other wideouts clips of players like Jerry Rice. He wanted them to learn the “right way” to approach the position, just like how Lachermeier recorded Johnson’s high school practices with an iPad so they could dissect the film afterward. Lachermeier focused on Johnson’s throwing mechanics during his sophomore year, then blended that with scrambles and quarterback runs during the final two seasons.
“He could just take off at any moment and go 90 (yards) for a touchdown,” Lachermeier said.
Johnson threw for 2,606 yards and 36 touchdowns as a high school senior, and when North built sizable leads on opponents, Johnson exited the game and called plays. He put on a headset, synced his thoughts with the offensive coordinator’s and watched as backups continued scoring. Lachermeier — also Johnson’s history teacher for three years — continued maximizing Johnson’s athleticism, and one time, he even saw it displayed during their homeroom period when Johnson danced every move to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
Adams knew Johnson’s switch to receiver at Minnesota would work because of the quarterback experience. He ran to the same spots he once targeted throws. Over Johnson’s seven years of playing the position full time, Adams said his blocking has improved as well as route-running during the limited chances he earns as a secondary target for the Bucs.
“If you’re only getting one or two balls a game, you make sure that you’re catching those balls,” Adams said.
One year after Bruce Arians said Johnson arrived at camp “a little heavy,” he has learned the offense more and played freer than in the past, Bowles said. Evans said Johnson has been in “tip-top shape,” and Bowles agreed. During Sunday’s team session, Johnson elevated for a high pass in the back of the end zone, flinging the ball into the air as teammates celebrated.
When asked earlier in camp about the compliments from Evans and Bowles, Johnson referenced his offseason training and how he worked his “butt off” daily. Then, a grin spread across his face as he spoke about Evans, the leader of the position room where Johnson wants a permanent spot.
“It’s good whenever Mike talks good things about you.”
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