Gus Malzahn’s recruiting pitch to Ja’Varrius Johnson two years ago was simple.
Ryan Davis is leaving. We want you to step into that role.
Those were incredibly big shoes to fill despite both players’ small statures. The 5-foot-9, 185-pound Davis is one of the most productive wide receivers in Auburn football history, holding the program records for career (178) and single-season receptions (84 in 2017).
But the 5-foot-10, 159-pound Johnson fit the mold perfectly. The four-star recruit was dynamic with the ball in his hands at Hewett-Trussville High, totaling 1,683 yards and 15 touchdowns on 87 catches as a senior.
“I think I can do the same thing as him,” Johnson said during a recruiting visit in November 2018. “Hopefully I can try to break his record one day.”
Two years later, Johnson is still as far away from doing that as he possibly could be. He has not recorded a catch in two seasons at Auburn. In fact, he has appeared in only one game — against Georgia last season.
A series of nagging injuries forced him to redshirt his freshman campaign in 2019. There were no indications that he was hurt last year, but he remained buried on a depth chart headlined by Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz and Eli Stove. Freshmen Ze’Vian Capers, Kobe Hudson and Elijah Canion seemed to pass him.
But those three veterans are gone now, off to prepare for the NFL draft. Johnson is now one of the longest-tenured players in a wide receiver room thin on experience. He has a fresh start to prove himself, too, with head coach Bryan Harsin, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and wide receivers coach Cornelius Williams replacing Malzahn, Chad Morris and Kodi Burns, respectively.
The fact that Capers, senior Shedrick Jackson and redshirt freshman J.J. Evans are dealing with injuries has opened up even more opportunity.
Johnson has taken advantage through the first half of spring practice.
“I’ve been pleased with him,” Bobo said. “I don’t know if he got as many reps in Practice 1. Maybe that was some formations or personnel groups we were in. But Day 2 and 3, he showed up. The bottom line is that you get out there, you notice guys on tape — are they coming off the ball, creating space, making plays? He has made plays for two days. His ability to get off the ball with speed and urgency has put pressure on the defense.”
Johnson was seen operating with the first-team offense during the open portions of Auburn’s early spring practices, along with Canion, Hudson and Malcolm Johnson Jr. He’s one of three players the Tigers are looking at to return punts, too, which is also something Davis did during his career.
The offense Davis starred in left with Malzahn, but Harsin and Bobo have plenty of experience making productive performers out of players with Johnson’s skill set.
Shane Williams-Rhodes (5-6, 173) was Boise State’s second-leading receiver in each of Harsin’s first two seasons as head coach, averaging 65 catches for 553 yards. CT Thomas (5-8, 175) was one of the Broncos' top three receivers in each of the last three seasons.
In Bobo’s lone season as the offensive coordinator at South Carolina, Shi Smith (5-10, 190) ranked fifth in the SEC with 57 catches for 633 yards and four touchdowns.
That’s not to say Johnson will do the same. But after two quiet seasons on the Plains, the former blue-chip recruit may finally be ready to emerge as a weapon in the passing game.
“Ja’Varrius has done a good job,” Harsin said. “He’s been one of the more consistent players day in and day out just as far as his execution, his preparation.”