Arizona’s Tyrell Johnson going ‘fast-fast’ to become all-around receiver

Tyrell Johnson scores on an 8-yard pass in the second quarter against Colorado last season.

J and L Photography/Getty Images

TUCSON, Ariz. — Growing up, Tyrell Johnson was friends with the fastest kid in Lee County.

And then he became the fastest kid in Lee County.

Johnson, from Cape Coral, Fla., ran the 100 meters in 10.4 seconds in high school, eclipsing the county record of 10.45, held by Sammy Watkins, the noted speedster from Clemson who was picked fourth in last year’s NFL Draft and went on to post nearly 1,000 receiving yards for the Buffalo Bills.

"We grew up knowing each other since we were like 6," said Johnson, a sophomore receiver for the Arizona Wildcats.

"We were always competing, always competitive. It was something we would always fight for, always trying to be better than the other. It was just one of those things. It was a big deal when I broke his record. Everyone was like, ‘Oh man, you’re fast.’ It’s a pretty nice accomplishment."

Johnson has a long way to go to catch Watkins in terms of football prowess — and they’re different kinds of receivers due to Johnson’s diminutive size — but this spring could be a good launching point. With junior slot receiver Nate Phillips easing back from a foot injury and DaVonte’ Neal having switched to cornerback, Johnson has been working with the first team early in spring practice.

"Obviously, he’s a really fast kid, a really skilled athlete," said receivers coach Tony Dews. "He just has to continue to learn how to be a true wide receiver. It’s great this spring that he’s getting a lot of reps at the position."

Johnson’s straight-line speed was on display in Arizona’s indoor track season. He posted a school-record time of 6.66 seconds for 60 meters in a preliminary round of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championships and then finished third in the final with a time of 6.72 seconds.

Arizona spring football

His focus will be on football through the April 10 spring game, and then he will compete in the outdoor track season in the 100, 200 and 4×100 relay.

Johnson (5-7, 160) said training with the track team "kind of helped me with my conditioning," although he might not want the conditioning-crazy football coaches hear that they can still push him to a higher level. "I don’t get as tired as fast. I’m running my routes full speed. I’m able to go more plays, able to run faster, line up faster, just play faster."

The work on the track is all done with coach Rich Rodriguez’s blessing, especially because he knows football is still Johnson’s top priority. The speedster, who spent the 2013 season at Milford Academy in New Berlin, N.Y., before joining the Wildcats last spring, scratched the surface in his Arizona debut.

He caught 14 passes for 120 yards and two scores while also serving as the primary kick returner, averaging 23.7 yards on 29 attempts. Rodriguez said the Wildcats were close to breaking some for scores, but blocking was often short of what was needed.

RichRod has always had big receivers at Arizona to deploy outside and inside, but he really likes the small, quick guys in the slot. The Wildcats have Johnson, Phillips (5-7, 180), junior Samajie Grant (5-9, 177) and redshirt freshmen Jonathan Haden (5-6, 181), Kaelin DeBoskie (5-6, 155) and Tony Ellison (5-11, 176). Haden is playing more at running back this spring but could always be used in the slot. Neal (5-10, 173) could end up back on offense, too.

And that’s all before intriguing recruits Darick Holmes and Shun Brown arrive as all-purpose playmakers in the fall.

Rodriguez loves these kinds of players.

"It’s easier to find them now than it was 20 years ago," he said. "Because there are so many more high schools running spread offenses, you’re getting guys who maybe didn’t play in the past or didn’t play a lot or couldn’t find a role. Now, there are a whole bunch of them out there. And because we’ve had some success with them, I think it’s easier for us to sell that part of it. …

"You just want guys who can make plays in space. We can get by with a little bit smaller guys, but they still have to be tough and they have to block on the perimeter as well, and be able to run the football."

Johnson said "blocking them big linebackers" was the toughest adjustment to college last season, but he’s eager to test his stronger body this fall.

The speed is not a question.

Teammates have stopped asking him to race.

"He’s fast-fast," Rodriguez said of Johnson. "There are some guys who think they’re fast. If they think they’re fast, then race T.J. They’ll find out that maybe they’re fast, but he’s fast-fast."

Defensive tackle Sharif Williams, who suffered a major knee injury in the first game of his senior season at Fresno Central in 2013, has been working with the backup units early in spring camp. Williams (6-2, 313) delayed his enrollment and joined the team this semester. "I like him," Rodriguez said. "He’s a big, strong kid. He has a long way to go with conditioning and getting used to the intensity in college. But he’s a tough guy and he’s got mass. He’s got one thing we haven’t had a lot of." … Arizona will hold its fifth spring practice Thursday before pausing for spring break. Don’t be surprised to see Rodriguez show up in Las Vegas for the Pac-12 men’s basketball tournament after that. The Wildcats will resume spring ball on March 23.

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