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IOWA CITY — Growing up in Bellevue, Neb., as the youngest of three sons, Keagan Johnson wanted to compete with his older brothers.
“What drives him is two older brothers that played at high level, and, ‘I want to be like that and better,’” his father Clester Johnson said. “We played basketball in the driveway. We’d play cards at home. … It was a natural competition.”
He often competed with kids in older age groups in organized basketball and football, too.
Now, Keagan Johnson is competing, and succeeding, with his older unofficial brothers on the Iowa football team.
Johnson, a true freshman, has the most receiving yards among Iowa’s wide receivers with 316, despite having only 15 receptions.
“It feels good just helping the team in any way I can,” Johnson said earlier this month. “When my name is called upon, I just try to do as much as I can, and that’s what my mindset has been.”
After a quiet first couple games, he emerged as a big-play option with two 40-plus-yard catches against Colorado State.
He doesn’t have the 1.875 receptions per Iowa’s games played yet to qualify for the Big Ten leaderboard for yards per completion, but his 21.1 yards per catch would be one of the best in the conference.
Johnson is just the sixth wide receiver in the Kirk Ferentz era to start a game as a true freshman and the second to start at least four games.
Leaders in the wide receiver room have told Johnson to “just keep it up,” he said.
Johnson had a head start. He enrolled at Iowa last spring, giving him an extra semester of practices at the collegiate level.
“It seems like some of the best players across the country, that's one of the routes that they want to go,” Clester said. “His mission was to play football, so we just planned it out, and I think he’s happy he did it.”
It didn’t take long after Johnson arrived in Iowa City for fellow wideout Charlie Jones to see the young prospect’s potential.
“Right away, you can tell he's really talented,” the senior said. “He’s got a lot of things that are going to help this team.”
Johnson is already reaping the benefits of the early enrollment, especially after Iowa’s quarterback change to Alex Padilla.
Padilla and Johnson often worked together on the second team in practices. When both moved to the first team, the chemistry was already there.
“We've gotten a lot of work together, so we're super comfortable with each other out there,” Padilla said. “We have a great relationship. We can kind of think what the other person’s thinking in a way.”
The Hawkeyes’ young big-play threat had a career-high five receptions in Padilla’s first game with significant playing time.
Then in his second game working significantly with Padilla, he resurrected a screen play that appeared to have no chance of success.
After Johnson caught the ball, two Minnesota defenders were right there to tackle him. He broke through, though, and ran for an improbable 27-yard touchdown reception.
“That was sweet. We were going crazy on the bench,” cornerback Riley Moss said. “He little-bodied those people.”
Jones couldn’t see Johnson’s physics-defying touchdown reception well because he was on the opposite side of the field, but he saw the replay “plenty of times” over the next two days.
“It’s pretty special,” Jones said. “Each week he is just going to continue to do things like that.”
A different play earlier in the Minnesota game caught offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’s eye, although it had much less of a spotlight than the touchdown.
“We run a pin-and-pull play out to the field, and Keagan’s out there burying the corner,” Ferentz said. “He’s got as devastating of a standing block as anybody on the field had.”
Ferentz, who is focused on “if we can improve and be better this week,” is hesitant to “go into prognostications” about Johnson’s future success. Jones sees him improving with every week, though.
“As the weeks go on, each week, he’s just learning and picking up more and more and adding it to his toolbox,” Jones said.
It’s going better than some of those card games in Bellevue.
“Well, Keagan was the little guy,” Clester said with a laugh.
Not so little anymore.
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