Miami's Johnson learns from past, but he prefers to focus on present

Academic offense behind him, receiver eyes Fiesta

Fiesta Bowl

January 02, 2003|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

TEMPE, Ariz. - Based strictly on statistics and highlights from last year's Rose Bowl victory over Nebraska, it's hard to find fault in Andre Johnson's performance. He caught seven passes for 199 yards and two touchdowns and was named the co-Most Valuable Player in Miami's 37-14 triumph.

In breaking down film of a game that gave the Hurricanes their fifth national championship, receivers coach Curtis Johnson spotted one mistake the then-sophomore wide-out made.

"He dropped a third-down curl pass in the third quarter," Curtis Johnson said earlier this week.

Few noticed, or cared.

A few months later, Andre Johnson made a mistake that nearly cost him his junior season.

It happened during the spring semester, when Johnson was accused of having his girlfriend write a paper for a sociology class. Being his second academic offense - with the same teacher no less - Johnson's case was brought before an honors committee made up of students.

Their verdict: a two-semester ban from athletic participation.

"When I first heard that, I didn't know what to do or what to think," Johnson said. "After it was appealed and changed, I knew I had to go out there and work hard because there were a lot of people saying things about me. I felt like it [the initial penalty] was too much, but there was nothing I could do about it."

On appeal in front of a committee made up of students and faculty members, Johnson's penalty was reduced to him being banned from the team over the summer. With the help of teammates who worked out with him at a local high school, Johnson was able to stay in reasonable shape for the upcoming season.

"Most of them [on offense] came over, and that meant a lot to me," Johnson said.

But Curtis Johnson, who is not related, believes that it proved costly in the early season injuries that nagged the 6-foot-3, 227-pound receiver. Going into tomorrow's national championship game against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl at Sun Devil Stadium, Andre Johnson is at full strength.

That could present problems for the No. 2 Buckeyes in their quest to upset the top-ranked Hurricanes.

"He's improved a lot since last year," Miami quarterback Ken Dorsey said of Johnson, whose 48 catches for 1,038 yards and nine touchdowns were all team highs. "He's done a great job catching the ball and running more precise routes. He's much harder to defend than he was a year ago."

With the speed that helped him become the Big East's 60-meter and 100-meter champion last year, and the size that usually allows him to withstand the tactics of more physical defensive backs, Johnson could be just as big a factor in this year's championship game as he was against the Cornhuskers.

The memories from last year's game are still vivid.

"It was just a big game for me; I had a great game, and a lot of people found out who I was," Johnson said. "I think it was a result of what they were doing. We knew they were going to come out in a lot of man coverage, and we wanted to take advantage of it. I don't see the same thing [this year]."

Johnson, as is his nature, is not getting too hyped about another much-hyped game and a possible matchup with all-Big Ten cornerback Chris Gamble.

"I can't rely on what happened last year," Johnson said. "I've got to play hard. He may try to play physically, but so will I. I'm not a guy who gets caught up in a lot of talking. I'm not a guy who celebrates. When I'm on the field, I let my performance speak for itself."

Aware of Gamble's South Florida roots, Johnson said: "It'll be like a big high school game."

Back at Miami Senior High School, and before that as a tailback and quarterback on a local youth team, Johnson had visions of becoming a Hurricane. He remembers watching wide-outs such as Horace Copeland and Lamar Smith.

"Growing up, I always wanted to be a Hurricane," Johnson said. "You kind of wanted to do things you saw them do on the field. When I got here, I knew there was a tradition of wide receivers. I used to tell my mom, `I'm going to play for the University of Miami.' When I signed, it was like a dream come true."

That dream nearly evaporated this spring, after Johnson was accused of academic fraud. The result of his appeal was met with skepticism on the Miami campus by those who felt Johnson was given preferential treatment. Miami coach Larry Coker was aware of the backlash.

"I'm not concerned about that because I know it's not true," Coker said. "It's not really a football issue at all. It was decided by the university, and there was a system in place. The accusations were taken very seriously. I wasn't concerned at all that he was given special treatment because he was a football player."

Said Johnson: "Everyone makes mistakes, and you learn from them. I felt like something bad could happen, or that I could make something good come out of it. I felt like I've made something good out of it."

Fiesta Bowl

Matchup:No. 1 Miami (12-0) vs. No. 2 Ohio State (13-0)

Site:Sun Devil Stadium, Tempe, Ariz.

When:Tomorrow, 8 p.m.

TV:Chs. 2, 7

Line:Miami by 12 1/2

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