DETROIT – Bowling Green coach Mike Jinks came up with a simple solution to a problem Mid-American Conference coaches will face all season — how do you slow down University at Buffalo wide receiver Anthony Johnson?
"Don't let him touch the ball," Jinks said at Tuesday's MAC Media Day in Ford Field.
If only it were that easy.
Johnson is coming off an explosive debut season with the Bulls, totaling 1,356 yards and a program-record 14 touchdowns on 76 receptions. He was first in the MAC and second in the nation in receiving yards and touchdowns.
Now entering his redshirt senior year, the 2017 All-MAC first-team selection is on the watch lists for the Fred Biletnikoff Award, given to the nation's top receiver, and the Maxwell Award, given to the top player in college football. Pro Football Focus ranks him as the top returning wide receiver in the FBS.
"I've been seeing all that stuff, but I don't like reading into it, getting a big head or something," Johnson said. "I push myself and work hard to get the best results. I want to be the best, but it takes a lot to be the best."
Jinks saw firsthand what Johnson can do at his peak. The junior college transfer from Iowa Western Community College caught eight passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns in the Bulls' 38-28 victory against the Falcons last season. His second score was a stellar example of his ability to stretch the field, as quarterback Tyree Jackson found him for a 69-yard touchdown.
The Bowling Green game was one of six 100-yard performances for Johnson last season and kicked off a three-game stretch of recording at least 150 yards.
"Once he straightens you up and gets on top, he just has such great ball skills," Jinks said. "The thing about him is his size. He's a much bigger man than people realize."
Johnson wasn't highly touted coming out of junior college. UB was the only FBS school to even offer the 6-foot-2 wideout and that came weeks after signing day. He's no secret now, and multiple coaches at media day said they expect to tailor their defensive game plan around him when they play the Bulls.
"Anytime you face a special player, you've got to slow him down some," Ohio coach Frank Solich said. "You're probably not going to control him. ... You're going to have to know where he's at all the time. He's that kind of player that you just can't go about your game plan in a normal way. You've got to understand what he's all about and adjust your game plan to that."
As UB coach Lance Leipold put it, "He will be a wanted man." Defensive backs will get up for the challenge and double teams will become standard, opening up opportunities for the rest of the Bulls' offensive weapons.
"You’d like to double him every down but you’ve got a quarterback, you’ve got running backs and you’ve got an O-line that you’ve got to contend with," Miami coach Chuck Martin said. "Him one-on-one in this league, he’s a handful. That’s why he’s a future NFL player."
That makes every week a chess match as UB comes up with creative ways to get Johnson involved.
"They put him everywhere," Bowling Green defensive back Marcus Milton said. "In the slot, outside, coming out of the backfield. It’s hard to account for where he’s going to be."
The MAC has produced some top-notch talents in recent years, as league commissioner Jon Steinbrecher mentioned in his State of the MAC speech Tuesday. When it comes to yardage, the NFL's top wide receiver, Antonio Brown, and running back, Kareem Hunt, both are MAC alums. The league's last stud receiver, Western Michigan's Corey Davis, went fifth overall in last year's draft to the Tennessee Titans.
Many expected Johnson to go the NFL route after last season, but, as he told The Buffalo News in November, he opted to stay in school after consulting his impressive inner circle in hopes of improving his draft status. If the preseason attention is any indication, he should have plenty of opportunities to wow scouts.
"Hopefully I can be one of those guys that came out of the MAC and be a top receiver in the future," Johnson said. "Hopefully that pushes me."