In Virginia team meetings, coach Mike London occasionally doubles as film director, sorting out scenes for his audience.
“I pull out positive plays, negative plays, whatever it is,” he said.
Two weeks ago, with his theater packed, London turned on spring practice tape to reveal a climatic take courtesy of his rising star of a wide receiver.
The football was snapped inside the defense’s 20-yard line, a place of doom for the Cavalier offense in 2013. They were 12th in the ACC in turning red zone opportunities into touchdowns.
Keeon Johnson, matched up with DreQuan Hoskey, went on a go route to the left corner of the end zone. Greyson Lambert, Virginia’s first-team quarterback of the moment, trusted Johnson’s three-inch, 46-pound advantage over Hoskey and unleashed a spiraling jump ball.
Showcasing his healthy blend of power and leaping ability, Johnson pulled the toss down as Hoskey couldn’t muster much of a challenge.
The play led to a nice review in the film room.
“With that guy’s big frame, with that vertical leap, we put the ball up and let him go get it,” London said. “It’s something that we need to have happen on a consistent basis. It was really neat to pull that clip out to show the team what can happen.
“Now he’s got to believe in himself that when the ball goes up like that, it belongs to him. We play a lot of small corners in the conference, and in college football, and when you get a size receiver like that, that can go up, it’s a beautiful thing to see.”
Virginia hasn’t opened a spring practice to the media since March 22, but London will be on a teleconference Wednesday to give reporters a team update.
Undoubtedly, the fifth-year coach will get his fair share of quarterback questions as Lambert, David Watford and Matt Johns were last seen still very much in a battle.
Whoever emerges as the starter for the Aug. 30 opener against UCLA isn’t going to mind a legitimate receiving threat.
Virginia hasn’t had a wideout log more than 1,000 yards since Billy McMullen turned the trick in 2001. In fact, the program has only had two 1,000-yard receivers since 1940.
Johnson’s freshman season — 20 catches, 282 yards, one touchdown in eight games — doesn’t suggest that he’ll join the exclusive club in 2014, but he showed enough flashes in 2013 for offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild to potentially build his passing attack around Johnson’s 6-foot-3, 216-pound frame.
“I can be,” Johnson said when asked if he could be UVa’s No. 1 WR. “I just have to keep working hard, trust in myself, trust in my teammates, and get the job done.”
Johnson was slated to redshirt before a receiving meltdown at Pitt on Sept. 28—see 10 drops in an ugly 14-3 loss—led London and company to reassess the position, opening an opportunity for the three-star recruit out of Kannapolis, N.C.
He took advantage by earning the start against Ball State on Oct. 5 and grabbing three Watford passes for 46 yards.
Johnson made at least one reception in every game he played. In back-to-back November weeks against Clemson and North Carolina, he combined for 10 grabs, 136 yards and a score.
“It kind of helped me grow into a more stable receiver, not just running routes but actually mentally reading coverages and things like that,” Johnson said of his rookie experience. “So it helped me out in the long run.”
This spring, Johnson’s already made subtle steps in that marathon.
Just ask the triggerman to his highlight-reel play.
“He’s a natural freak when it comes to body type,” Lambert said. “He’s come on greatly this offseason and he’s really embracing his role on this team. He’s playing really well right now.”
Especially when the quarterback puts him in those go-get-it, 1-on-1 situations.
“It’s something I look forward to,” Johnson said. “When you’re bigger than a guy, you just have to use other skills to get open and make plays.”