Versatile new Steelers receiver Diontae Johnson ‘a natural’
Jason Candle was entering his first game as coach at Toledo when necessity required him to expand the role of freshman wide receiver Diontae Johnson in the 2015 Boca Raton Bowl.
Alonzo Russell, Toledo’s top receiving threat who is now with the New York Giants, was ineligible for the first half against Temple because of a targeting penalty he received in the Rockets’ season finale. Candle, promoted to head coach when Matt Campbell left for Iowa State, turned to Johnson, who had just 12 catches in the regular season.
Johnson’s first-half contributions were modest: two catches for 28 yards. But they came against Temple cornerback Tavon Young, soon to be a fourth-round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens and now the highest-paid slot corner in the NFL.
“That was a clear picture that this guy had the ability and talent level to do it and do it on a consistent basis,” Candle said Monday, referring to Johnson. “If he put it all together and kept his career path on the right trajectory, he could be something special.”
Three and a half years later, Candle’s belief was rewarded when the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Johnson in the third round of the NFL Draft.
A quarterback until his senior year of high school in Ruskin, Fla., Johnson was a late bloomer who became a two-time all-conference selection as a wide receiver and return specialist before the Steelers chose him over some bigger-name, higher-profile draft candidates with the No. 66 overall pick.
“We believe that this kid is just a natural football talent,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said.
Although Candle shared the thought, Johnson’s path from bowl game starter as a true freshman to third-round NFL selection didn’t follow a linear trajectory.
Johnson lost his entire sophomore season at Toledo to a medical redshirt because of a broken foot that he suffered in practice.
In hindsight, Candle thinks Johnson benefited from spending that year on the bench watching Cody Thompson, an undrafted free agent this year with the Kansas City Chiefs, compile 1,264 receiving yards.
“He was able to come in here and make an impact early as a freshman, but it probably was unfair to him,” Candle said. “He probably was not ready to play as a freshman from a maturity standpoint. He was so talented and so good, that we threw him into the fire.
“Having to sit out as a sophomore was hard on him emotionally, but it probably put things in perspective for him of how quickly things can be taken away from you. … He also had a chance to sit back and see how guys went about their business away from the field and how they paid attention to the little things that leads to success on the field.”
Johnson discovered that success as a redshirt sophomore. He caught 74 passes for 1,278 yards and 13 touchdowns while also taking a punt and kickoff return the distance.
“He was a hungry, motivated guy,” Candle said.
Johnson’s receiving numbers dropped to 49 catches for 761 yards and eight touchdowns last season, but he continued to excel on special teams by averaging 18.5 yards per punt return and 25.8 yards on kickoffs.
Johnson left school with a year of eligibility remaining and graduated Saturday with his classmates.
“His best attributes are the reasons why the Steelers drafted him,” Candle said. “He has elite change of direction and the ability to separate from defenders. He can win one-on-one matchups. Anytime you have that capability, you have the ability to become the team’s No. 1 receiver. He had the ball skills to match that.”
Steelers wide receivers coach Darryl Drake was intrigued when coach Mike Tomlin asked him to watch tape of Johnson during the team’s scouting preparation ahead of the draft.
“When I saw him, I said, ‘I see why you want me to watch this guy,’ ” Drake said. “He’s a very talented and gifted player. The film doesn’t lie. It tells you want you need and then the more homework you do, you either confirm it or you say, ‘No, he’s not quite what you thought he was.’
“Our consensus was this guy’s got it.”
Drake said he made several trips to Toledo to meet with Johnson, whose 5-foot-10, 183-pound frame and slippery running style has drawn comparisons to another Mid-American Conference late bloomer: Antonio Brown.
Candle said “multiple teams” met frequently with Johnson, but he was happy to see the Steelers spend a third-round pick on his star receiver.
“It’s often when guys get drafted because teams think they are a really good fit,” Candle said. “It’s rare for a team that drafts somebody, and the player also really thinks it’s a good fit. I think this is one of those situations.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .