Ryan Greene/Las Vegas Sun
Monday, Aug. 31, 2009 | 2:10 a.m.
Michael Johnson lay on the Qualcomm Stadium turf with his hands on his helmet, face down in the blades of grass.
“Anguish,” said Johnson, who all summer kept a photo of the scene on his MySpace page for motivation.
San Diego State cornerback Dey Juan Hemmings leaned over and tapped Johnson’s left shoulder pad three times.
“From the outside looking in, you probably thought he was talking stuff to me,” Johnson said. “Actually, he said ‘Thank you’ that I dropped it. I beat him so bad, and I dropped it.
“So … he wouldn’t get into trouble. He said ‘Thank you’ three times. Every time he slapped me, he said ‘Thank you.’ ”
Hauling in the bomb might have altered a game and a season. In the 2008 finale against the Aztecs, a victory would have sent the Rebels to their first bowl, likely in Hawaii, since 2000.
Instead, the 5-foot-8 sophomore thought about the 5-7 season, and that whiff in the most important game, all summer.
“But there comes a time when you’ve got to get over it and get ready for the next season,” Johnson said. “I did look at that picture every day over the summer as a reminder to get over it and have a good season this year.”
Johnson was raised in Suisun, Calif., halfway between Sacramento and San Francisco. Dreadlocks – he hasn’t cut his hair since the sixth grade – are his signature.
Always playing sports with older brothers Erick, a junior receiver at Delta State in Mississippi, and Larry served him well.
“I was 4-2, they were 5-8 and blocked my shots all day,” said Michael Johnson. “I couldn’t get it off. It wasn’t happening.”
The bigger, more experienced foes honed him.
“Made me tougher,” Johnson said. “Made me way more competitive. You can see I’m short. When I was growing up, I got used to being the smallest guy on the field. So it’s nothing new.”
At Rodriguez High, he threw for 1,257 yards as a senior. He had 15 touchdowns and only two interceptions. He ran for 775 yards and returned two interceptions, two punts and a kickoff for touchdowns.
The only thing Johnson didn’t do, he said with a smile, was play on either line. He also pitched and played center field, and he might play baseball at UNLV next spring.
When UNLV wide receivers coach Kris Cinkovich recruited in Sacramento, he heard about Johnson’s basketball abilities.
“Guys in that area always talked about who would be playing basketball one day in Arco Arena,” Cinkovich said. “And they kept talking about this little point guard with dreadlocks at Rodriguez. I said, ‘Is that the same guy who quarterbacked the football team?’ They said, ‘Yeah.’
“That’s when I came running back to coach (Mike) Sanford and said, ‘Boy, I’m hearing some things about him that are really dynamic.’ He was almost legendary among those basketball guys.”
For the first time in a long time, asthma has affected the soft-spoken Johnson this training camp. He reaches for his inhaler once or twice a practice.
“This year, the first day of camp, it instantly hit me,” he said. “I don’t know why.”
Johnson has had other setbacks as he tries to establish himself as more than Ryan Wolfe’s backup in the slot in UNLV’s intricate passing schemes.
He was late to a meeting and slipped on the depth chart. A groin injury relegated him to two therapy sessions in a swimming pool. At a scrimmage at Sam Boyd Stadium, he muffed a punt.
Channing Trotter and Mike Grant are pressing Johnson, who gained a total of 17 yards on six punt returns a year ago, in that heated competition.
“Mike has a habit of wanting to catch and sling the ball low in his punt cradle,” Cinkovich said. “We’re trying to get him to move that up. It was just a brief lapse of concentration. He’ll be fine.”
Johnson shrugged off the miscue.
“I’ve been catching it too low and it hit off my shoulder pad,” he said.
Johnson has also turned some heads at UNLV.
He set Mountain West Conference records last season with 37 kickoff returns and 853 yards returning kickoffs. His 169 return yards against UNR were a single-game UNLV record.
Twice, he has earned the coveted black jersey, Sanford’s reward to an offensive and defensive player for a sterling practice.
And Cinkovich loves Johnson’s grit as a blocker. Against Iowa State last season, the 168-pound Johnson held his own against a 230-pound weak-side linebacker.
“We call it, ‘Get run over slowly,’ ” Cinkovich said. “He would throw his body in there and that’s what he would do, enough to help the play go. It happened numerous times. You saw some toughness there.”
Seventeen times, either on end-arounds or direct snaps, he ran with the ball, gaining 84 yards. He caught just two passes for 3 yards. Johnson yearns for recognition for his receiving prowess.
“He’s going to be an exciting player in this offense,” Wolfe said. “We have a lot of different rotations now, and he’ll get more outside receiving work when we have five wide receivers in there.”
“He’s proven himself, so coaches will try to get him more snaps. He showed glimpses last season. He’s more mature, so he’ll think less. He’s so explosive when he gets the ball in his hands.”
Quiet and sturdy
It just has to settle into those hands.
UNLV trailed SDSU, 14-7, halfway through the third quarter when Johnson’s number was called on the deep route along the right sideline. He zipped by Hemmings.
As the ball floated down to him, Johnson reversed his hands, as if he had already nabbed it and was pulling it into his torso.
Never in his possession, the ball smacked against his right thigh pad and tumbled to the ground. On the next play, the Rebels fumbled it away to the Aztecs, who took that possession into the end zone for a 21-7 lead.
The Aztecs deflected a pair of UNLV rallies and won, 42-21.
Cinkovich said the counter-clockwise spin of lefty Mike Clausen’s throw can be confusing. It showed up on tape during a winter review session. Cinkovich said it could have happened to any UNLV receiver.
“These guys’ psyches … you have to be careful,” Cinkovich said. “We spend so much time building guys up and making them believe in themselves … we don’t spend a lot of time on negatives.”
A rough play, Wolfe said, but the balance of the season didn’t depend on that, or any singular play.
“There were a handful of games we could have turned around,” Wolfe said. “Mike’s a quiet, sturdy kid. I know it didn’t get into his head too much. At the same time, I’m sure he used it as motivation this offseason.
“As a team, we’ve tried to keep it in the back of our heads, to use those bad feelings as motivation coming into this season.”
Johnson, who has added 12 pounds of brawn, was recognized as one of the team’s best weight lifters during the winter conditioning program.
“He’s developed the reputation as one of the hardest workers in our program,” Cinkovich said. “Perhaps he didn’t have that reputation before that play, but he’s a proud kid.”
Johnson is brief, to the point. Asked about the season, he quietly responded.
“All for the Rebels,” he said. “We’re ready to win.”