Marek Warszawski

Las Vegas Bowl anything but meaningless for KeeSean Johnson, Bulldogs’ star receiver

Competitiveness key to KeeSean Johnson’s success

Fresno State offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer discusses wideout KeeSean Johnson and his development. The senior already is at the top of the Bulldogs' all-time receptions list and is 128 yards from becoming the all-time leading receiver.
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Fresno State offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer discusses wideout KeeSean Johnson and his development. The senior already is at the top of the Bulldogs' all-time receptions list and is 128 yards from becoming the all-time leading receiver.

The thought, KeeSean Johnson insists, never entered his head.

Skip Saturday’s Las Vegas Bowl against Arizona State, the final game of Johnson’s Fresno State career, so the record-setting receiver can start preparing for the NFL Draft?

No way, no how.

“No thoughts in my mind about not playing in this bowl game,” Johnson said. “Going out there to fight for my teammates and go get a victory.”

If Johnson had opted to call it a career following the Bulldogs’ emotionally satisfying victory in the Mountain West championship, he would’ve been part of a growing trend. What began in 2016 with LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey has become a full-fledged movement.

This bowl season more than a dozen star players, including N’Keal Harry, the Sun Devils’ all-Pac-12 receiver, are opting to end their college careers early rather than expose themselves to injury.

And really, who can blame them?

It’s one of the unintended consequences of college football’s playoff system. Once the two bowl games that serve as national semifinals had their stature raised, the rest were automatically relegated to lesser importance.

Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford and the Bulldogs are in Las Vegas for a match up against the Arizona State Sun Devils in the Las Vegas Bowl, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2018. The bowl, and the Sun Devils, present some challenges, Tedford said.

For these players, the NFL is a lifelong dream. And who wants to risk injury during the evaluation process leading up to the April draft to play in a game that doesn’t hold much meaning?

Only those who see the potential benefits as outweighing the drawbacks. Which includes players like Johnson who, unlike many of the standouts sitting out their school’s bowl games, are not rated as first- or second-round picks by NFL draftniks.

“I see it as an opportunity,” he said. “Power 5 (conference) schools, they get a lot of talk and hype. So just being able to play a team like that is definitely a good opportunity to put some good things on film and try to get a victory too.”

I hear from Bulldogs fans all the time who pine for Fresno State to be invited to join a Power 5 conference. Power 5 schools may get eight-figure television revenues and exposure, but they also get Power 5 problems.

Such as standouts such as Harry, rated by ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. as the No. 3 receiver available, sitting out Saturday’s bowl game against the Bulldogs.

Johnson, meanwhile, will be in uniform trying to add to his school records for career receptions (273) and receiving yards (3,430). After that, he’ll focus on preparing for the NFL Draft and becoming the first Bulldog to have his name called since Tyeler Davison, Derron Smith and Cody Wichmann in 2015.

“I just want to play football — any chance I get I’m going to go out there,” Johnson said. “You never know when your last game might be, so I’m going to go out there and play and give it all for my team.”

Giving it all has become something of a Johnson trademark, especially in his two years under coach Jeff Tedford.

Among the Bay Area native’s 93 receptions this season was a 23-yarder against UCLA at the Rose Bowl where Johnson refused to be tackled. It took four Bruin defenders to force him out of bounds, but not until he gained an extra 7 yards.

That wasn’t an isolated incident. Johnson’s game film is filled with catches after which he looks for contact rather than avoid getting hit.

The Mountain View native can be elusive as well, best evidenced by an 81-yard touchdown catch last season against Boise State. Johnson got behind two Broncos defenders, hauled in a pass from Marcus McMaryion near midfield and outsprinted both to the end zone for the clinching score in Fresno State’s 28-17 victory.

“I see a guy that has learned to really compete with the ball in his hands after he catches it,” Tedford said. “I’m not sure he had that at the very beginning of last season. He was always a quality receiver, but now you can see he’s on a mission.”

Receivers coach Kirby Moore praised Johnson’s consistency as well as his competitive spirit: “When he catches the ball he has this scorer’s mentality. He wants to get into the end zone and make a guy miss. That’s KeeSean playing football.”

Most college football players mature and progress during their careers. Few, however, do as much of that as Johnson.

Fresno State wideout KeeSean Johnson, right, pulls beats Boise State safety Kekoa Nawahine, left, on an 81-yard touchdown reception in the Bulldogs’ 28-17 victory over the Broncos Saturday, Nov. 24, 2017 in Fresno. Johnson is one of 50 named to the watch list for the Biletnikoff Award, and one of nine to make the cut for a second year in a row. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA

During a Fresno State practice I attended in 2015, Johnson failed to make a catch and was verbally harangued by a member of the coaching staff. Using words that can’t be printed in a family newspaper, the coach questioned the freshman’s manhood as well as his desire.

No one’s questioning either of those qualities now.

“I remember,” Johnson said. “But those are the coaches that brought me in, so I’m thankful to them at the same time. Different coaches have different ways of showing that they see a lot in a player. Maybe that was his way of showing that and showing me the ways of playing.”

Johnson credits his father, Sean Johnson, for teaching him to never be satisfied with being average and always striving to improve. That includes specialized training designed to impress the pro scouts, but not before the 6-foot-2, 199-pounder puts the finishing touches on his record-setting college career.

“I’m trying to pursue this dream of playing at the next level,” he said, “so you’ve got to go out there and play with everything you’ve got.”

Skip the bowl game? This NFL prospect wouldn’t dream of it.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee
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