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Penn State
Football: Paterno has serious plans for top receiver

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

By Ray Fittipaldo, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Penn State receiver Tony Johnson was the first guy to make a joke in the huddle, the first to try to diffuse a tense situation on the field with humor or an offbeat remark.

Larry Johnson, his brother and Heisman Trophy finalist running back, once described his view of football as "war."

He said his brother Tony viewed it as a game.

With the departure of Larry Johnson (and his 2,436 yards of offense) and leading receiver Bryant Johnson (917 receiving yards), Tony Johnson is being urged to shed his gregarious on-field persona and become an authoritative senior leader for the Nittany Lions.

"Tony's personality is one that he is a fun kid," Penn State Coach Joe Paterno said.

"When you get to a certain stage, you have to make up your mind: What is commitment? Now he has to be a guy who wants to be the dominant guy. That is going to take a little bit more consistency in some of the things he does.

"He has a tendency to look like a great football player and then he gets a little bit careless. He can't afford to get careless. He has to be a leader. He has to be one of the guys that is going to do that, and I think he will. He comes from a great family, and I think he has it all. He has a chance to be really good."

Tony Johnson, the top returning playmaker for the Lions, had 34 receptions for 549 yards and three touchdowns last season.

He will be counted on for bigger numbers next season as well as a bigger attitude.

"I can change my personality on the field. But I won't change my personality off the field," said Johnson, who is 5 feet 11 and 206 pounds. "I can be a [pain] if I want to be. Off the field, I can be the same old person. But on the field, I'll do what I have to do."

Johnson's leadership will be paramount at a position that is virtually void of experienced players. Other than Johnson, the only other receiver on the roster with a reception is junior Gerald Smith (11 for 129 yards), who is the leading candidate to start opposite Johnson at flanker. Kinta Palmer, Ernie Terrell and Terrance Phillips are also vying for playing time.

Johnson was the second option in the passing game the past two seasons. He was the receiver left with one-on-one coverage when Bryant Johnson was double-teamed. Now he is going to be the No. 1 option, and he is primed for the opportunity to take center stage.

"There's definitely a different mind-set," he said. "You have to have that sense of urgency that the ball will get thrown toward you every play. It could be the play to break the game open. I have a bull's-eye on my chest now. I'm the No. 1 guy."

Penn State's passing game declined in the second half of last season.

Only once did the Lions pass for more than 200 yards in their final six games. A lot of that had to do with Larry Johnson having his way with some of the worst run defenses in the NCAA.

But the receivers and quarterback were inconsistent, too.

Without an established tailback to take over Larry Johnson's workload, the offense should be more diversified.

That could mean a return to some of the pass-happy days of two years ago, when the Lions threw almost as much as they ran.

Last season, they ran 60 percent of the time compared to a 50-50 split in 2001.

"I'm looking forward to it a lot," Tony Johnson said. "I've been waiting for this to happen, to be the main guy, to be the only Johnson out there making plays.

"I know I have to step up. Gerald Smith knows he has to step it up as well. I think we'll throw more than we did last season. It'll be up to us as receivers to make more plays now."

Ray Fittipaldo can be reached at rfittipaldo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1230.

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