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WSU’s Isaiah Johnson-Mack learning that size equals advantage

UPDATED: Tue., April 11, 2017

WSU’s Isaiah Johnson-Mack hauls in a pass during spring football practice last Thursday at Martin Stadium. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
WSU’s Isaiah Johnson-Mack hauls in a pass during spring football practice last Thursday at Martin Stadium. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – It’s not easy to forget Isaiah Johnson-Mack’s stature – it’s the most memorable thing about the 6-foot-3, 218-pound wide receiver.

But that’s what Johnson-Mack says he did 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 forgot that he still 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 they must grow into their bodies mentally as well as physically.

Those who have been following the Cougars for a few years will recall that 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 literally bounced off his 240-pound body during a 72-yard touchdown run during 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 told The Spokesman-Review afterward.

It’s a realization 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, but also the chance to punish a smaller opponent with a blow.

That’s why Johnson-Mack says that 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 the last two years. Tavares Martin will enter next season as the only upperclassmen to have played, and right now he has still been on campus 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, and head coach Mike Leach made a point of listing him at the start of spring practice as someone who had been working particularly hard in the offseason.

That work ethic was apparent when Johnson-Mack graduated from Dwyer High in Belle Glade, Florida, early 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 said.

“He’s a worker, man,” says backup quarterback Tyler Hilinski. “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.”

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