Those on the outside haven’t mentioned him at all, while even those who cover the team on a daily basis have hardly spoken his name. All the concern with Mississippi State’s offense has been about replacing Josh Robinson or Dillon Day or Ben Beckwith or Blaine Clausell. Fair concerns, sure, but no one seems to remember Malcolm Johnson, the versatile tight end who did so much for the Bulldogs as they broke record-after-record in 2014.
“We had a great offense and Malcolm was kind of the glue that held it all together,” said tight ends coach Scott Sallach. “You didn’t have the numbers for it, but the offense is much more dangerous with a guy like that who can do all those things.”
The numbers themselves are solid, as Johnson had 28 catches for 380 yards and three touchdowns last season, averaging the rough equivalent of three first downs per game. But it was what he meant to the team overall, as a leader, as a playmaker, as a unique threat from the tight end spot and as a trusted veteran for Dak Prescott to lean on that made him so vital to State’s success in 2014.
As Sallach pointed out, Johnson played some 2,000 or so snaps over the course of his career at MSU, a constant lynchpin for Dan Mullen’s offense. And now, he’s gone, off to play for the Cleveland Browns, leaving a gaping hole in MSU’s lineup that somebody has to fill. It appears junior Gus Walley is going to be that guy.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” Walley said. “Malcolm, those are some big shoes to fill.”
The good news for Walley is that Johnson spent the better part of the last three years personally training him to step into those shoes when the time came. Walley’s very first day at MSU, he walked into the locker room in search of his nameplate. At the time, the room was set up with the lockers in pairs, and Walley’s was connected to Johnson’s. Johnson was the first person Walley met on his new team, and he turned out to be the most important one, too.
“Everything about the game that I know today is because of Malcolm Johnson,” Walley said. “He taught me everything I need to know. Coming out of high school, I was a receiver just like him. Just like him, it was foreign to me when I came in, but he took me under his wing.”
The question now: is Walley ready? He only had four catches last season, though more than anything that was due to Johnson getting nearly every possible snap. But even when he wasn’t getting passed to, Walley was still getting time on the field. He says now that those moments, despite how nervous he was, were absolutely necessary. He was thinking too much, he said, and not playing naturally. Since then, and because of those moments, the game has slowed down.
Walley says he’s finally comfortable, finally smooth and finally ready for the job. His coach agrees.
“All you have to do is just watch him perform out there,” Sallach said. “Gus knows what to do, how hard you’ve got to play, the effort you’ve got to give, the intensity you’ve got to have … You look at where he’s come from to where Gus is now, it’s not even close … You can see the difference in his attitude, his performance, his demeanor.”
However, replacing Johnson may not be a one-man job. Big-bodied senior Darrion Hutcherson will be part of the rotation, too, and it’s he who Sallach said has made the most improvement of anyone in the group of tight ends.
But it’s a true freshman who might be the next Johnson in more than one way: the 6’3”, 230-pound Hoover High School product Justin Johnson. Since the first day of fall camp, his name has been coming off the lips of his teammates and coaches as an impressive young player who has surprised people with his abilities.
Sallach said Walley is “clearly” the guy at the No. 1 spot, but that Justin’s potential might be the greatest on the team, and perhaps even moreso than Malcolm’s.
“He’s an extremely talented young man,” Sallach said. “He could be an upgraded version of Malcolm Johnson if – if, if, if, – he keeps progressing in the right direction, if he has those same intangibles that Malcolm had.
“He has God-given ability that not everyone in that room has. There are things he can do that not everybody just physically is capable of doing. They can still be successful at the same things, but he can do some things that other people can’t. You just hope the mental aspect is able to progress to doing those things on a Saturday evening.”
Malcolm Johnson is difficult to replace, and parts of what he contributed may be gone with him, but there’s reason for he, MSU and Sallach to have faith. He may be gone, but Malcolm trained his successor himself and it looks like the heir to the throne may have just arrived.