LARAMIE — C.J. Johnson spent a lot of time last season going through the same routine.
Working his way back from surgery to repair his torn ACL, Wyoming’s veteran receiver got the same question from head coach Craig Bohl nearly every week. He’d hesitantly give the same answer. The Cowboys’ medical staff would then chime in with a consistent, honest rebuttal.
“Coach Bohl would be like, ‘Do you think you’re ready?’ I’d just be like, ‘Yeah,’” Johnson said with a laugh. “And the training staff would be like, ‘He’s not.’ It was just a constant battle between me, the training staff and Coach Bohl just waiting to see what the training staff would say.”
This went on ahead of each of the Cowboys’ first nine games. Johnson desperately wanted to play, but the reality was his knee wasn’t ready. Once Wyoming’s game at Colorado State in late October came and went without Johnson getting on the field, the weekly back and forth stopped.
“I just wanted to be out there with them,” Johnson said. “I redshirted my freshman year, and it’s hard sitting out the whole season because you just want to be out there with everybody.
“It was tough, but ultimately it was a smart choice not to do anything for sure.”
Johnson is back this spring and running close to full speed on a football field for the first time since sustaining the injury during the Cowboys’ Potato Bowl win over Central Michigan in December 2017. He’s still shaking off some rust, but for the first time in more than a year, Johnson is starting to look like his old self.
“I think he’s 1,000 percent better than he was in the fall,” receivers coach Mike Grant said. “There’s really not much pain going on, so he’s really just trying to work out the kinks. He’s excited. He wants to take that first scrimmage and take a hit and then you kind of get over each hurdle. Can I make these cuts? Can I run this post? OK, I’m good. Can I get hit? That’s kind of where he’s at right now.”
Johnson said he started to really feel like his old self again when the team reconvened for offseason workouts in January, which marked a year since his surgery. Regaining his old form would be a welcomed boost for a receiving corps that struggled with consistency throughout a season in which the Cowboys finished next to last in the Mountain West in passing offense.
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A healthy Johnson was a problem for opposing defenses two years ago, as he posted career-highs in receptions (30), yards (531) and touchdown catches. He also averaged a career-best 17.7 yards per reception while his seven scoring grabs led the team.
Johnson said he’s not as fast as he was before the injury. Even if he’s not able to get all of his speed back, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Johnson still has the frame to give Wyoming the kind of deep threat it lacked in the passing game without him last season.
“Some of it is leadership in the room, but some of the big plays that he can bring,” Grant said of Johnson’s skill set. “He’s not quite there yet, but it’s coming. I can see it coming back in him, and just that aspect of a weapon to make something happen deep.”
Yet there’s versatility to Johnson’s game. While he’s working primarily on the outside this spring, he’s not confined to that spot. Johnson’s knowledge of the offense as a fifth-year senior makes him a prime candidate to line up at any receiver position depending on matchups.
“I’m someone who knows the playbook very well,” Johnson said. “I remember my first spring ball, I took the point to learn all the positions, so I’m kind of like a Swiss army knife with that. I can go wherever they need me to go.”
There’s still the mental hurdle that comes with an injury that cost him an entire season. It’s hard for Johnson not to think about it when he plants his right foot to make a cut or change direction, though time and reps will help with that.
“He’s out there competing and has made some nice catches,” Bohl said.
Now that he’s back on the field, he’d prefer to stay there.
“The first day we got out there to run around and stuff, I was like, ‘Oh, I haven’t felt this good in a while,’” Johnson said. “Coming out and just being back out with everyone, it feels super nice.”