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Quentin Johnston looking for bounce back season with Chargers

Ric Tapia-The Sporting Tribune
The Sporting Tribune's Fernando Ramirez on Quentin Johnston looking to make an impact in year two after subpar rookie year.

COSTA MESA, Calif. — There is one play that lives in Quentin Johnston’s mind. It motivates him to work because he never wants to be in that position again.

Thirty seconds were left on the clock in Green Bay, with the Packers up by three. Justin Herbert moved to his left to evade the rush. As they faced 2nd-and-6, he threw down the field to Johnston, who was coming open. He ended up dropping the pass. If he had caught it, he would have more than likely scored six.

“At the catch-point, taking my eyes off of it. I look it all the way in. I feel like it was a lack of focus all together,” Johnston explained. “It was straight-up unacceptable. I always kind of go back to that moment when I step back out on practice or if I’m feeling a certain type of way at practice, I always go back to that. OK, if I take a day off here, it’ll kind of correlate or wind down into a game like that, which, obviously, I do not want again.”

Johnston’s rookie year was disappointing, to say the least, especially his draft position: 21st overall and second receiver taken. He caught 38 passes for 431 yards and two touchdowns. 

He faced scrutiny all season for lack of production and drops.

“Even through the bad games I had last year, I was never like, ‘Maybe I can’t do it,'” Johnston said. “Because at the end of the day I still hold myself to a high standard and feel like I’m not here for no reason.”

In his rookie season, Johnston was put in a tough spot because Brandon Staley and his staff initially brought him up slowly. When Mike Williams tore his ACL in week three, they needed to bring him up too quickly.

He studied every game and practice during the offseason to correct last season’s mistakes.

“Literally every single one of my drops last year, it was like, ‘OK, I see the ball, I’m looking to run up field and I’m taking my eyes off it,'” Johnston said. “Obviously, you can’t catch something you can’t see.”

Looking to the present, Jim Harbaugh and Joe Hortiz have spoken positively about Johnston while expressing their belief in him. One of the significant factors will be new receivers coach Sanjay Lal, who has been an NFL coach for 19 seasons and has been with numerous teams.

When it comes to the receivers, the only receiver he knows is DJ Chark from their time together in Jacksonville. For everyone else, this is a clean slate in the receiver room.

“I wasn’t coaching him. I wasn’t here. I don’t know the circumstances,” Lal said. “To take a player back to that, especially if it’s a negative, I don’t see any purpose going forward.”

Lal said he did a lot of homework on Johnston before the 2023 NFL Draft because Seattle had the 20th overall pick, but they selected Ohio State receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba. 

Since joining the staff, they have sat down to watch a film together to discuss what they can do to help him improve. 

The Chargers receivers coach recently helped Seahawks receiver DK Metcalf improve his game, so he has taken a similar approach with Johnston.

“What it tells me is — when DK first started, he was a very upright runner,” Lal explained. “We developed some drills to get him in more of a drive-phase. It’s not so much the player, it’s what are these areas of improvement and what are the drills associated with it? 

“I’ve coached enough guys where it’s let’s use this drill for this, let’s use this one for this, let’s use this one for this. The great thing is, now, on the tape that I can show, look what he used to look like and look what he looks like now. That’s a powerful tool.”

Regarding the drops, Lal has already impacted Johnston because he referenced a lack of concentration, which Lal referred to when speaking of how to help with drops. 

“You can’t just say, ‘Oh, he dropped ‘X’ amount of balls. He can’t catch.’ Well, what were they? Was it vertical tracking? Was it behind him and he didn’t open his hips enough? Drilling all of those and narrowing down, is he truly deficient in one of these skills of catching the ball? Then, you can absolutely work it,” Lal said.

The receivers coach does see some promise from the former TCU receiver. They are working with him and trying to help him be a game-changer. 

“He’s got a lot of juice,” Lal said of Johnston. “He almost bounds when he runs. Working on his body positioning is one of the biggest things that we’ve done. He’s really improved some of his stop-type of routes, like keeping his shoulders over his feet longer and not looking early. That’s a big jump he’s made so far.”

Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are no longer with the team as Harbaugh and Hortiz decided to move on from them. That means they will need Johnston, Chark, and Joshua Palmer to step up and make up for the production.

“He’s a lot more mature,” Palmer said. “In terms of knowing how to do things that he might not have known how to do before and he’s just a lot more critical of himself.”

Now, Johnston has to continue to show that last season was a fluke and that he can contribute to the team. Training camp will be critical for the coaching staff to see what he offers.

Improving his catching ability and relationship with Herbert will be critical so he doesn’t have to continue to watch the Packers drop.

“If I feel like something was off about a throw or route that I did, I’m like, ‘Hey, how can I fix that? What do you see?’ He’ll tell me what he sees and I’ll tell him what I’m feeling,” Johnston said. “It’s kind of been a back-and-forth with that. It’s been really good. I’m really excited to go into this next season with him.”