IOWA CITY – Keagan Johnson doesn’t take it for granted.
“At this time last year, I was in high school playing on Friday nights and now I’m competing on the number two team in the nation. I’m blessed,’’ the Iowa freshman receiver said.
Johnson has joined fellow freshman Arland Bruce IV in carving out a productive niche for second-ranked Hawkeyes as they prepare for Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game against Purdue at Kinnick Stadium.
Both receivers arrived at Iowa in January, adjusting to the expectations at the college level both athletically and academically during the spring semester before working their way onto the field this fall.
They have both seen their snap counts grow with each game of the Hawkeyes’ 6-0 start, targeted more frequently and delivering more frequently as Iowa works deeper into the season.
Johnson, a 6-foot-1 former Bellevue (Neb.) West standout, has shown his big-play potential while catching four passes for 137 yards and collecting his first collegiate touchdown.
Bruce, a 5-10 Olathe, Kansas, native who spent his senior year of high school in Iowa playing for Ankeny, has caught nine passes for 60 yards and also has one touchdown reception on his resume.
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They’ve earned the opportunity to become options in the Hawkeye passing attack with one other shared trait.
“The both have an uncanny ability to just go out on the practice field and rise to the level of competition,’’ Iowa coach Kirk Kerentz said. “They have done a pretty good job of that, not necessarily every day, but for the most part they have been able to do that so that is a good thing.’’
Johnson made his first career start in Iowa’s win over Colorado State, becoming just the sixth true freshman receiver to start for the Hawkeyes during Ferentz’s 23 seasons.
That rare chance is something Johnson appreciates.
“There’s a lot of freshmen who want to be on the field right now,’’ Johnson said. “I’m blessed to be out there and I just want to be help the team out any way I can. That might be blocking. Sometimes, it might be that they depend on me to get catches and make something happen.’’
Johnson made something happen in the fourth quarter of the Hawkeyes’ 23-20 win over fourth-ranked Penn State last weekend and did so without the ball in his hands.
He found himself being an effective decoy on the play that sprung Nico Ragaini open for a game-deciding 44-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter.
Johnson’s role was to go deep down the middle, running a decisive route. His burst drew two defenders away from the play, creating space that allowed Ragaini to cutback across the field and get open for what proved to be the winning score.
“I’ve got to sell it like I’m getting the ball. I wanted to make sure that I got him inot the end zone, so I took off at the snap like I was going to get the ball,’’ Johnson said.
That burst was critical to making the play work.
“You’ve got to run a route like you are the main target, like the ball is coming to you. You have to approach it that way. I was able to get the man to go with me and Nico did the rest,’’ Johnson said. “That was crazy. I was so happy for Nico. He’s my guy.’’
The success came a week after Johnson learned a tough lesson.
He was flagged for a blocking penalty that erased a touchdown by Sam LaPorta during the Hawkeyes’ 51-14 win at Maryland.
“He probably heard an apology from me about six or seven times about that,’’ Johnson said.”That took a touchdown off the board, but luckily that touchdown didn’t cost us much that game. Could have. I couldn’t apologize enough, but he knows I was just being aggressive. All of the guys were supportive.’’
That’s all part of the learning for a freshman.