Former quarterback ‘magician’ Tyler Johnson navigates Bucs’ large-scale competition

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TAMPA — Tom Lachermeier was convinced that Tyler Johnson in fact didn’t read anything at all during the zone reading games.

The North Community (Minn.) High School quarterback wouldn’t condone the defensive end. He just got the shot and started running. It became something that Lachermeier, the quarterbacks coach, joked about with Johnson, who didn’t necessarily need to see where the linemen were going. The receiver now Bucs could maneuver around them regardless.

But one day, Johnson discovered a photo taken during a zone-reading play and messaged it to Lachermeier. “Look at my eyes,” Lachermeier recalled as he tapped Johnson. “They’re right at 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-reading plays correctly — to complement natural ability, and he underwent a similar transition at Minnesota after the coaching staff felt his 6-foot-2 frame could excel as a catcher.

It turned Johnson into an All-Big Ten wide who set 22 program records. The early stages of his NFL career featured a handful of highs – like a acrobatic hold against the Saints in their January 2021 playoff – and the trough from the start of last season’s training camp out of form, which he called his “own fault”. This camp, however, he drew compliments from head coach Todd Bowles and No. 1 receiver Mike Evans, validating his approach “to being a pro.”

“My mindset has just been to control what I can control knowing that we have a big group in the reception hall,” Johnson said. “I just have to take advantage of the opportunity presented to me.”

Tyler Johnson set 22 records at Minnesota, including the most career receiving yards (3,305) and the most receiving yards in a single season (1,318). [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

When Johnson started at Minnesota, he first needed to understand the position. This meant learning more about running, dropping hips, entering and exiting breaks, and using quick changes of direction. His high school basketball instincts — Lachermeier and Adams said Johnson could “jump off the gym” — helped challenge defensive backs for high passes, and that’s what he thrived on early on.

That advantage materialized in 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. A game he was supposed to run a corner route. Instead, he ran under the total. This led to another Minnesota wide receiver getting “blown up” by a linebacker.

Outside of practice, Anderson showed the other clips of Johnson and Minnesota wide players like Jerry Rice. He wanted them to learn the “right way” to approach the job, much like Lachermeier recorded Johnson’s high school practices with an iPad so they could dissect the film afterwards. Lachermeier focused on Johnson’s throwing mechanics in his sophomore year, then mixed that with scrambles and quarterback runs for the past two seasons.

“He could just take off anytime and go 90 (yards) for a touchdown,” Lachermeier said.

Johnson threw for 2,606 yards and 36 touchdowns as a high schooler, and when North built significant leads over his opponents, Johnson walked out of the game and called plays. He put on a helmet, synchronized his thoughts with those of the offensive coordinator and watched the saves continue to score. Lachermeier – also Johnson’s history teacher for three years – continued to maximize Johnson’s athleticism, and once even saw it displayed during their class period when Johnson danced every move to “Thriller” by Michael Jackson.

Adams knew Johnson’s move to receiver at Minnesota would work because of the quarterback’s experience. He ran to the same places he once targeted. In Johnson’s seven years playing the job full-time, Adams said his blocking has improved along with his road running during the limited chances he wins as a secondary target for the Bucs.

“If you only get one or two balls a game, you make sure you catch those balls,” Adams said.

Tyler Johnson, pictured during the 2021 season, is entering his seventh year as a wide receiver after starting as a quarterback in high school.
Tyler Johnson, pictured during the 2021 season, is entering his seventh year as a wide receiver after starting as a quarterback in high school. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

A year after Bruce Arians said Johnson came to camp “a little heavy,” he has learned more offense and played more freely than in the past, Bowles said. Evans said Johnson was “in great shape,” and Bowles agreed. During Sunday’s team session, Johnson rose for a high pass from the back of the end zone, tossing the ball in the air as his teammates celebrated.

Asked earlier in camp about the compliments from Evans and Bowles, Johnson referenced his off-season training and the way he worked out on a daily basis. Then, a smile spread across his face as he spoke of Evans, the head of the post room where Johnson wanted a permanent place.

“It’s good when Mike speaks well of you.”

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