It’s not easy to forget Isaiah Johnson-Mack’s stature — he’s a 6-foot-3, 218-pound wide receiver.
But Johnson-Mack says he forgot about that when he arrived at Washington State and was given the opportunity to play as a true freshman last year. He saw defensive backs who were much larger than those he faced in high school, and overlooked that he had half a foot and 40 pounds on most of them.
“Last year I definitely felt like, ‘Oh, these guys are so much bigger.’ I kind of forgot how big I was,” Johnson-Mack said. “But I fear nobody now.”
Tall, athletic wide receivers have a tremendous physical advantage over defensive backs, who are rarely tall and never particularly bulky. But the receivers must grow into their bodies mentally as well as physically.
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Before Vince Mayle was a record-setting receiver for WSU as a senior, he was a gentle giant as a junior. It wasn’t until California defenders bounced off his 240-pound body during a 72-yard touchdown run in WSU’s 44-22 win at Berkeley in 2013 that Mayle realized he could simply bully players on the field.
“I realized nobody wants to hit me,” Mayle said afterward.
It’s a realization that Johnson-Mack is in the process of making as well.
During his first year, Johnson-Mack made some big plays, catching 35 passes for 246 yards and a touchdown. But too often he’d run out of bounds in front of a defender, missing the extra yards he might have gained, and the chance to punish a smaller opponent with a blow.
That’s why Johnson-Mack says toughness is the area of his game he would most like to improve this spring.
“I’m a big guy, so in high school it was easy for me,” Johnson-Mack said. “But here, everybody’s fast. My biggest attribute is my body. So I had to learn I’m a big person. So I’ve got to play big.”
The outside receivers are in a tenuous position from a learning standpoint, because a lot of experience has left the program in the last two years. Tavares Martin will enter next season as the only upperclassmen to have played, and he has been on campus for less than two full years.
“It’s pretty much just me; we don’t have a ton of leadership in my room,” said outside receivers coach Dave Nichol. “We still have to grow and mature and get better with all that. Right now, the leader is me, and that’s OK. It would be nice if somebody would step up, but I just want them to worry about being on time.”
Johnson-Mack’s coaches and teammates have singled him out for the hard work he’s put in. Head coach Mike Leach made a point of listing Johnson-Mack at the start of spring practice as someone who had been diligent in the offseason.
That work ethic was apparent when Johnson-Mack graduated early from Dwyer High in Belle Glade, Florida, so he could enroll for spring practice last year and secure a position backing up Gabe Marks.
“Seeing how competitive (Marks) was and how he handled himself, I really needed that,” Johnson-Mack said.
“He’s a worker, man,” backup quarterback Tyler Hilinski said of Johnson-Mack . “He came in last spring and adjusted so quickly and kind of stepped up. Once Gabe left, he knew it was his turn to be the guy. That’s what we’ve seen from him this spring.”