Pittsburgh Steelers fullback Will Johnson burst upon the scene last year as a year-old undrafted free agent, and he certainly made the most of his opportunities. In 2013, those opportunities appear likely to increase for the West Virginia product, according to a Monday evening report by Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
While Johnson only registered 15 catches for 137 yards and a touchdown last season, eight of them moved the chains, while the other 7 produced an average gain of 6 yards on either first or second down. Despite playing only 366 snaps on offense as a rookie, Johnson managed to impress Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, who talked glowingly about his find back in February at the 2013 NFL Combine.
“Will Johnson did a great job for us, Colbert said during his combine media session. “We signed Will out of the West Virginia pro day last year as a free agent, a fullback candidate, and quite honestly, he exceeded our expectations. We didn\’t know what he was going to be able to do because he really didn\’t do much of what we asked him to do at West Virginia. He was more of backside-move, kind of tight end. In our situation, he became a traditional fullback and did a great job, so we\’re hoping he can continue it.”
According to Johnson, he\’s been able to showcase his hands quite a bit this offseason during the Steelers first three weeks of OTA practices.
“We are doing a lot more; that\’s been evident (during OTAs),” Johnson said, via the Kaboly report. “In the red zone, they put some angle routes in there for me. We are doing a lot of things. If they are impressed, they will show me by adding plays where I can get out in some routes, particularly in space. That\’s how I will know if they are interested in using my hands.”
Johnson\’s journey to becoming a fullback for the Steelers initially started when he arrived at West Virginia as a wide receiver even though he played mostly halfback and linebacker in high school at Centerville High School in Dayton. However, due to him continuing to gain weight, he was moved to tight end in the spring of 2008, and it resulted in him catching nine passes for 64 yards and a touchdown that season in his new role.
After finishing his college career with 25 catches for 249 yards and four touchdowns, Johnson went undrafted in 2011 and unnoticed afterwards thanks mostly to the NFL lockout. He sat out of football for a season while working three part-time jobs, but managed to catch the eye of the Steelers coaching staff at the West Virginia pro day in 2012 that resulted in him being signed immediately afterwards.
When starting fullback David Johnson went down last year in the preseason opener against the Philadelphia Eagles with a knee injury, it was Will\’s job to win, and he did just that.
Johnson told Kaboly the Steelers coaching staff has had him working on sustaining his blocks this offseason and that he\’s also getting work as a stand-up tight end in addition for when he is used out wide in the outside zone blocking scheme that the Steelers are expected to use more of in 2013.
“Every day I am learning something different, especially using the outside zone scheme,” Johnson said. “You can see that I am still learning how to read it.”
While the Steelers didn\’t use it enough last season to my own liking, Johnson was very effective at running the wheel route out of the backfield in 2012, so hopefully we see more of that in 2013.
While Johnson\’s primarily role will remain him being a lead blocker on running plays, he has done enough already to warrant defenses needing to pay much more attention to him this upcoming season. While I think the Steelers will continue to carefully pick their spots that they choose to use him as a receiver in 2013, I don\’t think that 20 catches are totally out of the question for him.
Johnson will get a chance to continue to work on his development starting Tuesday as the Steelers begin their three day mandatory mini camp.