Here comes trouble: Johnson valuable to Steelers’ offense

August 16, 2013

LATROBE – Throughout training camp at Saint Vincent College, when the Steelers have worked their running backs and tight ends against the linebackers in passing drills, there’s usually one guy who no one can cover.

And it’s probably not the first player to come to mind when people think about the top pass catchers. Will Johnson, all 6-2 and 238 pounds of him, has been trouble from Day 1 for the linebackers.

It could be a portent of things to come for the second-year fullback out of West Virginia.

“Hopefully. I’m not complaining if so,” said Johnson. “(Offensive coordinator Todd) Haley does a good job of setting me up and using me in situations to utilize my pass-catching abilities. Hopefully, he continues to do that. We have a lot of options. I’ll just be another one.”

And an important one, especially while tight end Heath Miller continues to attempt a comeback from torn knee ligaments suffered late last season.

Without Miller or wide receiver Mike Wallace, who left for Miami, the Steelers are missing 135 receptions and 16 touchdowns from a year ago.

“Will is a special kind of back because he can block, he can catch, he can kind of play a tight-end type role,” said Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. “It’s neat to see his improvement and growth. We’re excited about being able to use him more this season.”

Johnson, who had 15 catches for 137 yards and one touchdown in his first season, could help fill that void. He had two receptions for 18 yards in limited playing time in the preseason opener, in addition to helping pave the way for a running game that produced 56 yards on 11 first-quarter carries.

What makes Johnson such an effective receiver out of the backfield is the thing that attracted the Steelers to him – his 4.5 speed.

Unfortunately for Johnson, he didn’t get to use that speed as much at West Virginia, where he had 25 career receptions for 249 yards and four touchdowns while transitioning from a player who began college as a wide receiver and left as a tight end.

Johnson wasn’t considered big enough by NFL standards to be a true tight end, and he hadn’t done a lot of conventional lead blocking in West Virginia’s spread offense. He was a man without a position, one who found himself undrafted and without an invitation to an NFL training camp in 2011.

“They’re all switching to that H-back position,” Johnson said. “You’re starting to see more receivers as tight ends. I won’t say I’m part of a dying breed. You can bulk up any receiver and make him a tight end. But it is a unique skill set. It’s an attitude that you have to have and something you have to be willing to do.”

Despite being spurned by the NFL, Johnson continued working out and training. He asked West Virginia if he could attend the school’s pro day in 2012. It was there he caught the attention of Steelers scouts, who signed him as a fullback to play behind David Johnson.

David Johnson, however, suffered a severe knee injury in the opening preseason game, and Will Johnson became a starter by default, albeit one who has excelled.

“It seems like you could say right time, right place,” Will Johnson said. “Everything happens for a reason. Maybe it was a good thing that I sat out for a year. It all worked out.

“I don’t know who it wouldn’t make hungrier.”

That hunger continues to drive him, though his role in the offense and spot in the starting lineup are secure.

“Family support, good friends and faith,” said Johnson, when asked what kept him going on his year away from football. “I just wanted an opportunity. I got my opportunity, and I wanted to make the most of it. I worked so hard, I wasn’t going to let it slip away.”

Odds and end zones

A day after leaving practice with injuries, running backs Isaac Redman and Le’Veon Bell were back Friday. Redman had a stinger, while Bell aggravated a bruised left knee. … Roethlisberger was given the day off from the team portion of practice. … The Steelers waived placekicker Danny Hrapmann and signed running back Jeremy Wright. … The Steelers will break camp Sunday and return to Pittsburgh. Their final practice at Saint Vincent College will be at 3 p.m. today. It is open to the public.

Dale Lolley has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1993 after previously working at WJAC-TV and the Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown, and The Derrick in Oil City. A native of Fryburg, Pa., he is a graduate of North Clarion High School and the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, where he earned a degree in journalism. He has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers since joining the Observer-Reporter in 1993, and also serves as the outdoors editor. He also is a radio host for Pittsburgh’s ESPN 970-AM, and serves as administrative adviser for the Red & Black, Washington & Jefferson College’s student newspaper.

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