He is a postmodernprototype for his position, Randy Moss minus the misanthropy. But CalvinJohnson, Georgia Tech's once-in-a-generation wide receiver, is not perfect. ¬∂Yes, the 6'5", 235-pound junior is the biggest reason the Yellow Jacketsare 5--1 and one of the favorites to win the ACC. He has great hands and, withhis 45-inch vertical leap, greater hops. ("It was probably closer to47," observes Tech left tackle Andrew Gardner, "but the [measuringdevice] only went up to 45.") Johnson is unrivaled among wideouts as ablocker. ("We run a sweep one time," recalls Chip Walker, who coachedJohnson at Sandy Creek High in Tyrone, Ga., "and he knocks the cornerbackinto two other guys--takes all three of 'em out.") And Johnson has thatoptimal blend of talent and work ethic. "God touched him in so manydifferent ways," says Buddy Geis, who coaches Tech's receivers, "butCalvin works like He didn't give him anything."
The problem?Johnson's touchdown celebration--he has performed it eight times thisseason--is a tad pedestrian. It is a co-production with running back TashardChoice. They slap right hands (front, then back), bump right shoulders, thenslap hands twice more while rotating their right arms 360 degrees--a high fivefollowed by a low five. But Johnson's heart isn't in it. "He's not real bigon [celebrating]," Choice says. "I had to talk him into it. I told him,'Man, you're Calvin Johnson. You've gotta do something.' Because this guy, he'sthe best I've ever seen."
Choice transferredto Georgia Tech from Oklahoma. The writing on the wall in Norman came intosharp focus early in the 2004 season, when he was beaten out by a freshmannamed Adrian Peterson. Thus Choice has counted as teammates two of the bestplayers in America. Should Johnson and Peterson enter the NFL draft after thisseason, they could be two of the top three picks.
Only twice in thehistory of the draft has a wide receiver been the first selection. The NewEngland Patriots chose Irving Fryar of Nebraska in 1984; the New York Jets tookUSC's Keyshawn Johnson in 1996. Wideouts "have been looked upon as kind ofa luxury," says a veteran scout for an NFC team. Yet that same man recallsthat at a recent meeting, his team's scouting director was asked what hethought of Johnson. His reply: "I think he's the top pick in thedraft."
Despitenear-constant double teams, Johnson has 35 catches for 559 yards through sixgames. Despite missing a week of practice with a badly bruised quad, he wreakedhavoc against Virginia on Sept. 21, catching touchdown passes of 58 and 66yards on consecutive pass plays. Next up for the Yellow Jackets was VirginiaTech, whose coach, Frank Beamer, deadpanned, "We don't have any defensivebacks who are six-five, 235." That was glaringly apparent after thekickoff. Johnson caught a half-dozen passes for 115 yards and two scores. Hefollowed that performance with a 10-reception, 133-yard, one-touchdownafternoon in Tech's win at Maryland.
"I've workedwith Joe Horn, Marvin Harrison and Sterling Sharpe," says Geis, who spent10 years as an NFL assistant. "Calvin's got everything they have, but hehas more of it."
See for yourself.Pay a visit to RamblinWreck.com, click on the picture of number 21 in theupper-righthand corner, then brace yourself for seven megabytes of circuscatches and Gumby-like contortions that defy both physics and reason. There isJohnson in the Auburn game last season, looking inside and then apparentlyusing radar to track a ball thrown over his outside shoulder. Bending his body,he reaches out-of-bounds to snag the pass, a 35-yard touchdown in Tech's upsetof the Tigers. There he is against Miami, elevating and bending backward tomake a grab, like a man falling out a window. The ball secure, he sails overthe sideline, parallel to the ground, but has the presence of mind to tap hisright foot on the grass inches inside the boundary. There is Johnson on acrossing route against North Carolina State two years ago, reachingbackward--telescoping his right arm like Inspector Gadget--to make a ridiculousone-handed pluck that moved the chains on Tech's game-winning drive. He leavesin his wake a series of traumatized cornerbacks whose thought balloons, had thewebmaster provided them, would all say the same thing: But ... but ... I hadgreat coverage!
Johnson isn'tlooking to humiliate anyone; it just works out that way. "He always had akind nature about him," says his mother, Arica. "He was one to pick[opponents] off the ground. Sportsmanship was important to him. He grew upgoing to church and to Sunday school. I always told him, 'If you treat peoplethe way you want to be treated, things will work out.'"
Calvin is thesecond of the four children of Arica and Calvin Johnson Sr., a conductor forSouthern-Pacific Railroad. Their daughter Erica, 25, is enrolled in medicalschool at Morehouse. Calvin's brother, Wali, is a senior at Sandy Creek; hissister Elan is in eighth grade.
Calvin describeshis father as "real cool, calm and collected--kind of like me." Arica,for her part, is a strong, no-nonsense woman with a Ph.D. and a high-poweredjob in the Atlanta public school system. Her father, she says, was a detectivewho earned his degree in law enforcement. To hear Calvin Jr. tell it, Arica isthe law in the Johnson household, particularly when it comes to her children'sacademic affairs. "You didn't want to bring home anything but an A or aB," he says. "To my mom, a C was like an F."
The last thing theSandy Creek Patriots see when they leave the locker room is a sign that saysfootball doesn't build character. it reveals it. By that logic Johnson in highschool showed himself to be a selfless team player who made the most of hisopportunities. While he popped up on the radar of every recruiting analyst inthe country, his star would have shone brighter in a different system. Then asnow, the Patriots were a run-first team with a proud tradition of sendingtailbacks to Division I schools. On the night Geis scouted Sandy Creek duringJohnson's junior season, the future All-America caught all of three passes."The first one," Geis recalls, "he ran a drag route across themiddle, made the catch, hurdled the cornerback and went 60 yards for thescore."
No matter how manytouches he got, recalls Yellow Jackets coach Chan Gailey, "he jumped out atyou. He was the biggest, fastest player on the field."
Johnson was acontributor the minute he stepped on the Georgia Tech campus, a legend by theend of his second game. With the Yellow Jackets trailing Clemson by 10 late inthe fourth quarter, he scored on successive jump balls from quarterback ReggieBall: an eight-yarder with 1:50 to play, followed by the game-winner, an11-yard touchdown with 11 seconds left.
Johnson finishedthe season with 48 catches for 837 yards and eight touchdowns. But the game hecarried into the off-season was Tech's 24--3 loss to Miami. He was erased inthat game by Antrel Rolle, the future first-round pick of the ArizonaCardinals. "He was big, very physical and very fast," Johnson recalls."I hadn't faced anyone like him. The message was, I needed to get muchstronger, and much better at dealing with press coverage."
He has. Inaddition to making his upper body stronger, the better to simply run throughcorners, he has learned to set defenders up, juking with a hard step in onedirection--"a guy that fast, they have to honor that step," saysGeis--then going hard in the other direction. Another way to defeat jams?"He's learned to 'swim' up over their heads with his arm, and boom!--he'sby them," says Geis. "And it's over. With this guy, there's nocatch-up."
Defensivecoordinators have drawn up more and more exotic schemes to neutralize thescourge of ACC secondaries. The most extreme example? Duke triple-teamedJohnson last year, which merely created opportunities for Tech's otherplaymakers. Gailey has responded by requiring Johnson to learn the threereceiver positions and moving him all over the field.
In response to theburning question--will he be back next season?--Johnson smiles and says,"I've always said I'm here to get my degree." (He's majoring inmanagement.) Left unsaid: He can get his degree after he turns pro.
Johnson will be astar at the next level not just because, unlike in college, cornerbacks in theNFL can't bump a receiver more than five yards downfield and not just becausethe guy throwing him the ball should be more accurate than Ball, whose careercompletion percentage is around 50%. No, Johnson will succeed on Sundaysbecause, says Gailey, he's hungry: "There are a lot of great athletes whostop improving because they think they've arrived. Calvin knows hehasn't."
Then there is thatother trusty indicator: The more nicknames a guy has, the better he must be.Johnson is Spiderman, a.k.a. Consensus (as in consensus All-America) and a.k.a.Neo, the gravity-defying star of the Matrix movies.
That last handleis probably the most appropriate. Because if you're looking for the bestreceiver in the land, this guy is The One.
To see where Calvin Johnson stands in the race forcollege football's most coveted award, check out Gene Menez's Heisman Watch atSI.com/collegefootball.
Some are familiar names, and some aren't. Here are sixother elite pass catchers who look good enough to play on Sunday
Mario Manningham, Michigan (6 feet, 182 pounds, Soph.)He's a fluid, seemingly effortless cornerback killer whose 24 catches in '06include nine touchdowns. Manningham, who missed last Saturday's game againstPenn State after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, is averaging 22 yardsper catch.
Dwayne Jarrett, USC (6'5", 215, Jr.) The offensivedoldrums afflicting the Trojans for the last three weeks have everything to dowith the left-shoulder injury suffered by this clone of Keyshawn Johnson. Watchstruggling quarterback John David Booty get much "smarter" as soon asJarrett is himself again.
DeSean Jackson, Cal (6 feet, 166, Soph.) Sorry,Dwayne. Until you fully heal, the best big-play receiver in the West attendsclasses in Berkeley. Jackson, who spurned the Trojans to play for Cal, haseight touchdowns receiving and two on punt returns. He has scored once every5.1 times he has touched the ball.
Davone Bess, Hawaii (5'10", 187, Soph.) Theleading receiver in the pass-happy WAC has 49 catches for 569 yards and sixtouchdowns. A skilled route runner, Bess is the master of YAC (yards aftercatch) and the beneficiary of June Jones's run-and-shoot offense.
Anthony Gonzalez, Ohio State (6 feet, 195, Jr.) Weknow, we know, Ted Ginn Jr. is a threat to go all the way every time he gets atouch. But spare some love for his teammate Gonzo (34 receptions for 522 yardsand five TDs), possibly the most precise route runner in the college game. Hemakes defensive coordinators pay dearly for double-teaming Ginn.
Robert Meachem, Tennessee (6'3", 208, Jr.) He'ssecond in the nation with 112.5 receiving yards per game, and his 4.3 speedmakes him especially dangerous after the catch. Meachem is a hard-nosed playerwho pitches in on special teams and enjoys going over the middle.
Geis, who has worked with Joe Horn and MarvinHarrison, says, "Calvin's got everything they have, but he HAS MORE OFIT."
Photograph by Jeffery A. Salter
EYE-OPENING Johnson, who has dazzled NFL scouts, could become just the third wideout ever taken with the No. 1 selection in the draft.
ROBERT BENSON/US PRESSWIRE
TROJAN HORSE Only a junior, Jarrett became the Pac-10 leader in career touchdown receptions in USC's victory over Arizona State last Saturday.
POINT MAN Although he has been the focus of opposing defenses, Johnson has scored eight touchdowns in six games.