DETROIT - The Gophers lately haven’t had a lot of players with the option to leave early for the NFL draft. Tight end Maxx Williams left after his redshirt sophomore season in 2014, and was taken in the second round by the Baltimore Ravens. Since then, it’s been quiet.
But receiver Tyler Johnson has added some intrigue after a monster junior season.
The Minneapolis native was a first-team all-Big Ten selection by the conference’s media and named to the second team by its coaches. And his receptions, yards, and touchdowns rank among the nation’s top 20 as the Gophers prepare for the Wednesday, Dec. 26, Quick Lane Bowl.
Johnson can break three Gophers single-season records against Georgia Tech at Ford Field. His 1,112 receiving yards are 13 behind Ron Johnson’s 1,125 in 2000, and his 10 touchdowns are one shy of tying Johnson and Omar Douglas’s 11 in 2000 and 1993, respectively.
He also is 10 receptions from catching Eric Decker’s record 84 in 2008.
The Gophers attended the Vikings’ 27-9 victory over the Detroit Lions at Ford Field on Sunday, and Johnson admitted his mind wandered to the prospect of playing in the NFL. But he insisted he hasn’t thought about whether this week’s bowl game will be his last at Minnesota.
“It really hasn’t come to mind yet,” he said. “I’m just focused on finishing the season and really being there for my teammates. So whatever happens, happens.”
Schools can request evaluations on up to five underclassmen from the College Advisory Committee, which includes NFL personnel and scouting organizations. The board returns ratings on potential first- and second-round picks; otherwise, they suggest the player stays in school.
Last year, the NFL said 140 players were advised to remain in school; 40 declared for the draft anyway.
This year’s draft class of receivers is believed to be loaded, with four of the top 20 overall prospects coming from that position group, according to cbssports.com.
Fleck said Wednesday he doesn’t expect other players to leave early for the NFL this season. Seniors Blake Cashman and Donnell Greene announced they’re skipping the bowl to prep for the pros.
Without high-end speed, Johnson has carved out success from top-notch route running. He said that part of his game has been the biggest improvement this season.
“It’s being able to push and move off one foot to the other to create separation,” he said.
Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said Johnson has become more detail-oriented.
“He understands the game a lot better,” Ciarrocca said. “He understands the different coverage looks he’s getting and what style they’re trying to do and what’s the best way to attack that particular look. He plays faster because he has a good command of what the defense is trying to do.”
Johnson has made some stunning receptions, including a leaping catch on third-and-9 when Minnesota was trailing Fresno State late on Sept. 8. It helped the Gophers knock off a Bulldogs team that finished the year 12-2.
But he also has had puzzling drops, something he cut down on as the year closed.
“He’s always made the spectacular catches since the first day I got here,” Ciarrocca said. “But he lacked consistency last year, and if I was critical of him anything early in the year, it was lacking consistency in catching the ball.”
Johnson managed only 35 receptions, 677 yards and seven touchdowns last season, which ended after 10 games because of a broken hand. If he’s able to stack a strong senior season on top of his productive junior year, it could make up for the lack of a wow-factor measurables at a combine or pro day.
Johnson grew up on the north side of Minneapolis and said he had to overcome financial struggles at home and sidestepped violence in the community.
“I grew up around it, and it was just having to get out of the struggle and see a brighter day, really,” he said. “Just to be able to get out of it really is a blessing, and I know that everyone there is rooting for me. It just feels good.”
But he’s not focusing just yet on becoming part of the 1.6 percent of college players that make it to the NFL.
“I just know that I have to keep working hard day in and day out, never get too big-headed and just stay laid back and stay me at all times,” he said.