Lights, Cam, Action: Cam Johnson ready for his time in the spotlight
Cam Johnson has waited for his time to shine. With the help Vanderbilt's all-time leading receiver, he's ready for a breakout season.
September 12, 2020
For most Vanderbilt fans, wide receiver Cam Johnson was the second most exciting recruit to come to West End from Brentwood Academy’s 2018 graduating class. That was no problem for Johnson, as the most prolific recruit from his class played a different sport. And was his best friend. And was the reason he moved to Nashville.
“In fourth grade, I moved from Madisonville to Nashville,” Johnson said. “I was originally coming here to play basketball with my best friends Darius Garland and Gavin Schoenwald.”
In fact, Johnson and Garland have maintained a strong relationship to date.
“Me and Darius are still super close,” he said. “Whenever [the NBA players] got that call that they weren’t going to be resuming the season for a while, he came to Nashville for two months. Probably two or three times a week, we were hanging out.”
Garland, of course, was one of the mostly highly touted incoming recruits ever at Vanderbilt, regardless of sport. Garland, Johnson and Schnoenwald, a tight end entering his redshirt sophomore season for the football team, hit the ground running at Brentwood. But once at Brentwood, Johnson quickly realized he would find his best success on the gridiron, not the hardwood.
“My freshman year I got my first couple football offers and just from there it started rolling, so I assumed and got the idea that I was going to play football,” Johnson said.
Just playing football is an understatement. In four years he led the Brentwood football team to three straight state championships and was a four-time all-state and all-region selection. He amassed 48 catches, 803 yards, nine touchdown catches and two punt returns for touchdowns during his senior season. Per 247Sports, he was a top-250 player and the sixth-best recruit in Tennessee. That resumé is one of a type of player that Vanderbilt had traditionally struggled to convince to stay close to home, and also one that attracts fellow Southeastern Conference (SEC) and national suitors.
“My first couple offers came in freshman year: Tennessee, Ole Miss, Auburn and Vanderbilt. At first, I really wanted to go to California and play for USC because that was my favorite school when I was growing up,” Johnson said.
But Johnson decided he didn’t want to go that far from home and family. After all, the SEC was right in his backyard and every school was calling.
“I’m really close to my mom, and the more and more I looked at the opportunity I realized I didn’t want to be literally all the way across the United States from her,” he said. “So I started narrowing it down and growing up in the South, you know SEC football is the pinnacle of college football.”
As the process went on, Vanderbilt’s proximity and family atmosphere struck a chord with Johnson. Following a visit to Alabama in late April of 2017, Johnson made two visits to West End, the latter of which ended up being the day before he committed to the Commodores.
“So I had figured out that I probably wanted to play in the SEC, and the more and more I came and visited and talked with Coach Mason and talked to Coach [Cortez] Hankton at the time, I just got a family-like atmosphere,” Johnson said. “I mean, you get the best education in the SEC here. And then I committed to Vanderbilt before my senior year.”
Another piece was the opportunity to come in and play early for the Commodores, something other SEC schools simply couldn’t offer. Coach Mason sold his coaching ability, both on and off the field, as well.
“They told me that I was going to have a chance to play early, if I were to come out and play how I was supposed to play. Johnson said. “I think that a lot of people underestimate the realness of coaches. And since I’ve been here, Coach Mason has done nothing to prove me wrong as far as him being one of the realest coaches out there.”
Johnson played in each of the first four games of the 2018 season, registering at least one touch in each, as Mason proved his word true on getting the youngster early action.
Johnson’s fourth game in 2018, however, would be his last. Late in a blowout loss to South Carolina, Johnson got rolled up blocking a Gamecock cornerback, injuring his left ankle and ending his season in the process. Johnson luckily managed to stay under the newly implemented NCAA redshirt rule and was able to gain another year of eligibility.
But a long offseason of rehab awaited. Like with most else, Johnson took a positive and began to grind.
“I was on a scooter for four to six weeks. And then once I got off the scooter, I was able to start running in a pool,” Johnson said. “So I had to gradually work up until I was able to actually run on my own. And then it was more about being able to cut and being confident in my ankle to be strong enough to handle cutting. Then by the time we got back for winter workouts, I guess in January, I was full go. So it was really only probably a three or four month recovery, which wasn’t too bad.”
Johnson was able to have a full spring and training camp in 2019. Then, in a healthy sophomore campaign, he put up over 300 yards and 3 touchdowns, including a 21-yard game-winning touchdown versus No. 22 Missouri. The Commodores struggled mightily on offense for much of the season, ranking #123 of 130 FBS teams in total offense, yet Johnson was still able to greatly increase his production, something he attributed to the game slowing down for him during his redshirt freshman season.
“So I think from my first year to last year was just sort of getting used to the speed of the game and understanding some of the bigger things of playing the receiver position at the college level,” Johnson said. “Just because I wasn’t able to experience that my freshman year since I only got to play four games, and I only played a lot in probably two of them. So I wasn’t able to get the nuances down.
Those nuances, and the health of his ankle, are important for a receiver like Johnson, who describes himself as “in the Cooper Kupp, Julian Edelman mold.” And now, not only does Johnson understand the intricacies of the college game better than he could have a year ago, he knows how to recognize those complexities in the film room as well. That, combined with his game experience in 2019 and the longer offseason this spring and summer, has led to more confidence in his game than ever.
Johnson attributes the progression to an increased maturity level and a little bit of help from Vanderbilt’s all-time leading receiver.
“I’ve been able to work on a lot more of the smaller things like just getting out of breaks [due to the increased offseason]. And also, we’ve had Jordan Matthews here over the past couple months as a volunteer coach. Just to be able to sit down and watch film with him and learn how to read the defenders technique and be able to run routes based off of that, I’ve learned a ton.”
Matthews, who played for three different teams over the course of his six-year NFL career, has been an instrumental part in Vanderbilt’s wide receiver room this offseason, according to Johnson. Johnson and Matthews, or ‘J-Matt’ as Johnson refers to him, have struck up a friendship as the younger Johnson aims to etch his name in Vanderbilt’s record books alongside Matthews.
“A lot of times during practice, [Jordan Matthews will] just evaluate [us] or he’ll help us with the drill or something. But then you go to the sideline, and [wide receivers coach Tony Ball] is, of course coaching and watching the guys on the field. So you can’t have those in depth conversations with him on the sideline. Whereas Jordan might have been watching you on that play. And he can say, “Well, this is what I saw.”
Matthews’ assistance isn’t just limited to the practice field. According to Johnson, J-Matt has helped in the film room, too—something that Johnson has struggled with in the past.
“I would go and watch film, but I didn’t know what I was looking for or how to say ‘Oh, that’s a good route by me’ or ‘This is what the DB does.” Johnson said. “Picking [Matthews’] brain whether we watch NFL guys and see some of the things that they do, or ourselves. He explains it to us or we watch our own film, and he says, ‘you did it like this, but in the league, we did it like that.’ And I think it will help a lot and I think that incorporating some of those sort of coaching points has been really good.”
Despite COVID-19 altering offseason training around the country, Johnson was luckily able to get some work in on the field in Nashville this offseason.
“Whenever I got with my trainer in the offseason we focused on being able to get in and out of routes, which is really important as far as the footwork. I focused on some of those minute details and tried to be able to get off the line a little bit faster, or be able to get off of a press quicker.”
With Johnson, the talent has always been there and with the adjustments he has made and extra preparation he has had this offseason, that talent should be on full display this year. But for a player to truly thrive, there needs to be opportunity along with talent. This year, with leading receiver Kalija Lipscomb off to the NFL, Johnson is poised to be the top option at wide receiver for the Commodores, his biggest opportunity yet in Nashville. But Johnson is ready. Lipscomb, with whom he cultivated a close relationship over the past three years, prepared him for this moment.
“Kalija was actually my official visit host, so I got to know Kalija pretty early. He was always super helpful. Before I got on campus he reached out to me and was like, ‘We want you to have a big role in the offense this year. So if you need to learn anything, then I got you, you can call me we can FaceTime and I’ll go over plays with you,’ stuff like that.” And then he was always just really supportive of me, so me and Kalija, we’re pretty close. I think that he was a really good role model for us as far as how to work and how to come each day and prepare for practice.”
As for how he plans to go about his new role as the lead wide receiver for Coach Mason and company, Johnson cites an increased emphasis on being a vocal leader and trusting his offseason training.
“Whenever it comes to leadership roles, I’m sort of more of the lead by example kind of guy. So I’m going to try and make sure that I’m there on time every day or I’m early—that I’m doing the right thing. But one thing the coaches challenged me to do this upcoming year, knowing that, was to be more vocal. And so I think that I’ve sort of come into my own as far as being able to call out guys but also know how they’re feeling.”
Apart from taking a leadership role, Johnson and the coaching staff also feel that he’s ready to make big strides on the field with the opportunities in front of him. During the offseason, the Commodores hired new offensive coordinator Todd Fitch. While many of the players may take some time getting used to Fitch’s philosophy, Johnson already has a fair amount of familiarity with Fitch’s scheme.
“I actually ran an offense, not exactly the same, but it’s similar to his, in high school. And I also played the same position, so it was sort of going back to my roots in a way.”
In addition, Johnson has been loving what he’s seen from the quarterback room as the season approaches. While the Week One starter has not yet been announced, Johnson has been able to develop a rapport with each of the potential starters.
“You got every single type of quarterback you can think of in that room, and they all have their own strengths that have been shown throughout camp so far. So I think that I’ve seen some really good things from them; they’re all able to make any type of throw on the field. And I know that the receivers are confident with any quarterback that ends up winning that battle.”
With the depth chart as open as it has been during his time at Vanderbilt, a fresh offense and quarterback, a fully healthy ankle and an offseason of work both on the field and in the film room, Johnson is poised for a breakout campaign in 2020. External expectations are high for the redshirt sophomore receiver, but Johnson’s may be higher for himself and his team.
“As far as team goals, definitely to get to the SEC Championship or a National Championship. But even more than that, just to make it to a bowl game would be very good. And then, personally, since I got to college, I’ve always told myself I want to have 100 catches in a season. I want to have 10 touchdowns in the season and a thousand yards.”
For Johnson, the bar is set. And if he somehow eclipses it, his newest famous friend on West End will be the first to hear about it.
“Ultimately, I want to beat J-Matt’s record, at least one of them, just so that I can talk a little trash to him when I see him.”