Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2004 | 9:17 a.m.
UNLV senior wide receiver Earvin Johnson has proved that he can catch passes in a crowd with the best of them.
Just ask his coach, John Robinson.
"Earvin Johnson is a lot like Keyshawn Johnson," Robinson said of the former No. 1 pick in the NFL draft he coached at USC. "(He's) very physical and superb at catching the ball in a crowd. His ability to jump and rebound the football is as good as I have coached."
A 6-foot-3, 200-pound senior from Los Angeles, Johnson enters his senior year with the Rebels with 123 career receptions, many of them made in acrobatic fashion in double-and-triple coverage. He needs 65 receptions this year to break the school career reception mark of 187 set by Damon Williams from 1995-98.
Johnson, voted the receiver with the "Best Hands in the Mountain West Conference" by Street & Smith's, figures to shatter that mark this fall.
One major reason for that is Johnson might actually find himself with some breathing room for a change thanks to some tweaking in the Rebels' pass offense.
"We're not going to make it easy for defenses this year to say, 'Hey, we're going to take this guy away,' " Rebels quarterback Kurt Nantkes said. "Last year we lined him up in the boundary 90 percent of the time. If teams wanted to take him away they'd just roll their coverage that way. But this year we're lining him up in the slot, we're putting him in the boundary and we're putting him in motion. We're going to make it so a defense can't just say, 'OK, we're going to stop this guy.' "
And that should translate into a lot more single coverage for Johnson.
"It's funny but if you watch the film you'd see Earv making catches with five guys on him," Nantkes said. "Now we're going to make it a little easier for him ... just one or two guys around him. And by moving him around we're going to give him a chance to do more with the ball after he catches it, too."
Johnson, a quiet, unassumming personality off the field, says he's looking forward to the more wide open passing attack.
"That's good that they're moving me around," he said. "Teams can't just key on me being in one spot anymore. And I think that's going to help our offense both passing and running the ball.
"Most of the teams knew where I was going to be last season. Sometimes I'd make a play and sometimes it wasn't there. But this year I think it's going to be a little different because I'll be able to move around."
The offensive changes have meant that Johnson has had to spend much more time learning the playbook and watching film.
"Basically, it's like I have to learn a whole new position because we have to do different things now," Johnson said. "But the good thing is that we've been working on this offense since the spring and now I'm starting to get used to it."
Wide receivers coach Kris Cinkovich said: "He's got great hands and a great knack for the game. He has a feel that you don't teach. He knows where the open spaces are. And he's a great competitor when the ball is in the air."
Johnson was asked about his goals entering his senior season as a Rebel.
"A hundred catches would be nice," he chuckled. "Actually, I just want our team to get better and hopefully win those first two games (at Tennessee and Wisconsin) and then go on to win the Mountain West Conference. This is a senior-based team and I think we should do a lot of good things this year."