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Receiver from Minnesota turning heads with Gophers coaches

Wide receiver Tyler Johnson catches a pass while being hit with pads by coaches, including Head Coach P.J. Fleck, right, during a Gophers football practice at the University of Minnesota, August 8, 2017. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

MINNEAPOLIS—Last August, incoming freshman wide receiver Tyler Johnson made a strong first impression on Gophers coaches during his first fall camp.

This year, Johnson continues to turn heads with the new staff. The sophomore from Minneapolis North was the first player Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck mentioned Tuesday when assessing a key position in transition. It's a trio of starting spots to be intertwined with the influx quarterback competition between Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda.

"I'm really, really impressed with Ty," Fleck, a former wideout who got his start as a receivers coach, said after practice at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex. "I think Ty started a little slower, and now he has just poured it on."

But Johnson is also no longer the darling new kid on the block, as freshmen Demetrius Douglas and Chris Autman-Bell have received double takes for some splash plays and rave reviews during the first week of training camp.

Autman-Bell is a recruit Fleck brought with him from Western Michigan in the 2017 class, and Douglas, the son of former Gophers receiver Omar Douglas, was a player Fleck flipped from Oregon after the previous staff watched him commit to the Ducks. The jump from high school to practice at a Big Ten school hasn't been a steep learning curve for either of them.

"It doesn't bother them whatsoever," Fleck said.

With the position on his mind, Fleck previously mentioned that junior Melvin Holland and senior Eric Carter are doing a "tremendous job."

As new playmakers have come on the scene in Minneapolis, others have left the stage after being hyped by the previous coaching staff.

Junior receiver Isaiah Gentry started fall camp last week but has since left the program. Also, sophomore receiver Hunter Register did not make the 105-player roster limit for fall training camp and could return to the team once school starts.

What about Rashad Still, the leading returning receiver with 18 receptions a year ago?

Fleck has made no secret that Still needs to carry a load for an inexperienced corps. Still, Carter and Johnson were talking the majority of the first-team reps Tuesday.

"We are putting a lot on his plate because if you are going to be a guy, and you are going to be the dude, then you have to handle a lot on your plate," Fleck said. "That is by design, 100 percent.

"He is changing every day, and he's growing, and you can see it," Fleck said. "He's failing and he's responding. He's failing; he's responding. He's failing; he's responding. He's succeeding."

For two consecutive seasons, the Gophers have had to replace one-third of their receptions. Last year, senior Drew Wolitarsky accounted for 36 percent of the team's receptions. In 2015, KJ Maye hauled in 29 percent of the catches.

"Everybody is very hungry," said Carter, who had nine catches last year. "... It always seemed to be one guy outdoing (everybody else) ... but right now we are all trying to do our own part."

Johnson, who was the state's No. 2 recruit in the 2016 class behind Eden Prairie linebacker and teammate Carter Coughlin, had to transition from a high school quarterback for the Polars. He said he's working on developing a better understanding of the position's intricacies.

Johnson started strong last season with six receptions in his first two games but ended the year with only one grab in the last five.

"Not everyone gets to be out there their freshman year and play," Johnson said. "I just took a lot in last year."

Count Johnson among the early fans of Autman-Bell and Douglas. "I like those young guys a lot," he said. "I'm taking them in under my wing and making sure they can be the best receiver they can be."

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