Speed is something you can’t teach. Sure you can improve it, but initially, you either have that raw speed on the football field or you don’t.
Montana State University-Northern senior receiver Kyle Johnston has speed, and he has lots of it.
And for the last two football seasons, Johnston, a junior college transfer from Shasta College in his hometown of Redding, Calif., has impacted the MSU-N offense in ways very few before him have. And with just a few games left in his already bright Northern career, Johnston is looking to keep making big plays, keep blazing trails and keep pushing the Lights towards new heights.
And being fast is the way Johnston does it. He’s only 5-8, but he can run, as evidenced by his 2011 season where he earned Frontier First-Team All-Conference honors at receiver, as well as second-team honors as both a punt and kick returner.
“I think I knew at a young age I could run,” Johnston said. “On the playground playing football when I was a kid, I was always pretty fast, and as I got older, that just seemed to be what really helped me as a football player.”
And being fast is something that runs in the family, as Johnston has a twin brother who plays football at NAIA Benedictine in Kansas, and played with Johnston at Shasta. But it was a close friendship which helped the Lights land Johnston in the winter of 2011.
“Out of high school, the only real interest I had was from Sacramento State,” Johnston said. “But when I was at Shasta, I had a buddy who had come up to Northern before me and that was Matt Cervenka. We had played football together all the way back to Pop Warner and Northern was the first team who called and really the only school I considered. Having Matt there, and I just really liked the coaching staff and the school, that made all the difference for me.”
And it made all the difference for the Lights too. Northern went on to record a solid 5-5 season in Johnston’s junior year. The Lights had one of the best offenses in the NAIA and Johnston was a big piece to that puzzle. In 2011, he racked up 793 yards on 44 catches while scoring five touchdowns. He averaged a whopping 19 yards per catch which was second in the NAIA and he averaged 21 yards per kickoff return and nine per punt return.
“KJ (Johnston) is a phenomenal athlete,” Northern head coach Mark Samson said. “He’s tough, he’s got great hands and he is fast. If he was six inches taller, he would have been a sure-fire Division I player, he’s that talented. He’s been a great player for us and he leads by example. He’s a quiet kid who doesn’t say a lot but everyone sees him go out and get the job done game after game.
“He’s a really versatile player and you saw that with him getting all conference at three different positions last year,” he continued. “And if we were a team that threw the ball 50-60 times a game, he would put up some really crazy numbers probably. He’s just a phenomenal football player and we’re lucky to have him in our program. He’s made a big impact on me and our team and what I really like is the kind of person he is. He’s a great competitor who hates to lose, but he’s also a really good person and an outstanding young man.”
And after a great junior campaign, Johnston has kept it going right into his senior year. Despite missing the Dickinson State game with an injury, through Northern’s first five games, Johnston has totaled 354 yards on 21 catches with four touchdowns, and is again averaging a huge per-catch number. Every time the ball is thrown to Johnston, he’s picking up over 17 yards per play, which means he’s gaining a first down almost every time he’s touched the ball on offense in his two years at MSU-N.
“He’s a small guy, but he’s a big target,” Northern junior quarterback Derek Lear said. “I’m always amazed by what he does, especially the routes that he runs. He is so crisp with his routes that the defense doesn’t really know where he’s going. He’s just a really special player who helps out our offense and helps me out a ton. I’m just always so impressed by him in every game and every practice.”
And Johnston loves making the big play and getting big yards because he knows that helps his team move the chains and put points on the board. But it was playing a different position which he credits to his ability to gain yards with the ball in his hands.
“I actually played running back in high school and I think that really helped me with yards after the catch,” he said. “Using cuts and moves as a running back, that helped with the transition to wide receiver. I think getting the yards and run after the catch is my biggest asset and playing running back really helped me with that.
“And it’s been great to come here to Northern and earn a starting spot in a spread offense like we run,” he added. “I think this offense was a perfect fit for me, and I have really enjoyed being a part of it.”
Johnston isn’t done either.
He’s got at least five games in his Northern career left, including Saturday’s home bout with another high-flying offense in the Southern Oregon Red Raiders. And Johnston says this week, and for the remainder of the season, his goals, and those of his team, haven’t changed. And always the competitor and always hungry for more yards, Johnston says he’s ready to kick his season into an even higher gear.
“I think now that we’re all healthy, you’re seeing what our offense can really do,” he said. “And I think we know we can go out each week and keep it rolling. My goal every time I’m out there is to run a solid route and try to get open, and if I get the ball, to make a big play, to get more yards for my team. But I also need to step it up more on special teams the rest of the season. That’s where I haven’t really had many big plays this season and our team needs that. So I need to go out there and get a big return for my team this week. So we’ll see how that goes.”
And make no mistake, Johnston loves breaking the big one just as much as he’s loved his time at Northern. And he’s also hoping that the gold Lights’ helmet he wears every day isn’t the last one he ever puts on.
“Being a senior, right now I just look around at practice and take it all in, because I know it’s going to come to an end soon,” he said. “Coming to Northern I really had no idea what to expect, but now it’s a home away from home for me. I’ve made great friends here, I’ve had great teammates and this community is a great atmosphere to play college football in.
“As for my plans after college football, I’m not sure,” he added. “I’m going to put a highlight tape together and see what’s out there. I’d love the opportunity to play somewhere after college though. But for now, I’m just focused on the rest of this season. I’m focused on making plays for my team and giving the fans a reason to jump out of their seats. I love that and that’s what I want to do the rest of this season.”
With his speed and playmaking ability, Johnston is pretty good at getting fans to jump out of their seats. And he’ll keep doing it in 2012. As for the future, with how good of a football player he is, I wouldn’t bet against him going on to a pro career and to keep getting fans on their feet.
Don’t blink though, because when the ball is in Kyle Johnston’s hands, you don’t want to miss it.