Positive returns thus far for Steelers rookie Diontae Johnson
Danny Smith visited Toledo in the offseason with the purpose of scouting Diontae Johnson, a talented wide receiver who doubled as a kick and punt returner for the Rockets.
Confirming what Smith saw on tape, the Pittsburgh Steelers special teams coach was impressed with what happened when Johnson got the ball in his hands. It was what happened before the ball landed in Johnson’s mitts that Smith questioned.
After the Steelers selected Johnson in the third round of the NFL Draft, Smith went to work trying to fix what he viewed as the reason Johnson had the occasional drop on his returns in his three seasons at Toledo.
“He has a technique issue that we are working on, to be honest, but he’s got great hands,” Smith said during minicamp before Johnson and the rest of the Steelers players embarked on a six-week break before training camp.
Johnson admitted to using spring workouts to correct a flaw in his hand placement when fielding punts and kicks.
“It’s how I’m drop-stepping and catch the ball a certain way,” Johnson said. “Keep my hands up high and not let them get wide. If I do that, the ball goes through my arms.”
The Steelers, who are trying to improve their kickoff and punt-return units this season, are hoping Johnson can continue building on what he learned in offseason workouts when the team reports to training camp Thursday at Saint Vincent.
As minicamp neared its conclusion in mid-June, Johnson was seeing progress in the adjustments Smith asked him to make.
“I’m starting to catch the ball more relaxed than I did in college,” Johnson said. “I was more tense (at first), but I’m feeling more relaxed and starting to take advantage of those techniques he’s been telling me about.”
Smith also was encouraged by the early, um, returns.
“He wants to do it,” he said. “That’s the upside to it.”
Johnson exited college as one of the most dynamic returners in the draft.
In 2018, his redshirt junior season at Toledo, Johnson was named the Mid-American Conference Special Teams Player of the Year. He was a first-team all-conference receiver and punt returner, and he was named to the second team as a kickoff returner.
Johnson averaged 25.8 yards and returned one kickoff for a touchdown on 16 attempts. As a punt returner, he averaged 18.5 yards and also scored once on 13 returns.
This followed a sophomore season in which Johnson also scored on kickoff and punt returns.
“He’s a good player, a real good player,” Smith said. “We’ll see how he handles all of this.”
With Ryan Switzer as the primary return specialist last season, the Steelers finished next-to-last among all NFL teams in kickoff returns by averaging 19.3 yards per attempt. They ranked No. 17, one spot below the average, in punt returns with an 8.1 average.
Johnson, though, also would like to contribute on offense. In his final two collegiate seasons, he totaled 2,039 receiving yards and scored 21 touchdowns on 123 receptions. He is the third highly drafted wide receiver the Steelers have taken in as many seasons. With JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington penciled in as the starters, Johnson could be competing with veteran Donte Moncrief for the No. 3 wide receiver spot.
Johnson also can play in the slot, although he said the Steelers did not use him in that capacity during OTAs or minicamp.
“I’m trying to show them I can be consistent and show them what I can do on the field at all times,” Johnson said. “My conditioning is getting better. It’s repetition and showing them I can make plays.”
Johnson was slowed early in workouts by a balky hamstring. Smith is concerned whether Johnson can handle the workload as a receiver and returner in his rookie season.
“He’s got to be in tip-top shape,” Smith said. “You talk about being a wide receiver, punt returner and kick returner in this league, your hamstrings better be in pretty good shape. That’s a maturation process he’s got to learn. I think he understands that.
“We’ll see what kind of shape he comes back in and whether he can do them all. Can he carry that load? It remains to be seen.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .