By Megan Ryan Star Tribune
Tyler Johnson exited his college football career with a career performance, catching 12 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns for the Gophers in the Outback Bowl on New Year’s Day.
That was just one game under the Florida sunshine at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. Imagine what he could do with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, catching passes from six-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady.
The former Gophers receiver went 161st overall Saturday in the fifth round of the NFL draft to the Buccaneers, joining Gophers teammate Antoine Winfield Jr., a safety picked by Tampa Bay in the second round.
The Gophers — who went 11-2 this past season and finished in the top 10 — had five players drafted, the most for the program since 1990 and a record for seven-round drafts. Linebacker Kamal Martin went 175th overall in the fifth round to Green Bay; linebacker Carter Coughlin went 218th in the seventh round to the New York Giants; and cornerback Chris Williamson went 247th in the seventh round, also to the Giants.
Gophers running back Rodney Smith, who set the school record for all-purpose yards at 5,441, will join Carolina as an undrafted free agent. Defensive tackle Sam Renner, a former walk-on from Maple Grove, will join the Los Angeles Rams.
“Oh man, it’s going to be amazing. It’s a very surreal moment,” Johnson said, adding he called Winfield on Friday to congratulate him. “… But we all know that right now, it’s back to business. We celebrate, we take these moments in, but the next day on, we move forward.”
The north Minneapolis native set program records for the Gophers in all-time receiving yards (3,305) and touchdowns (33) as well as single-season marks in those same categories, catching passes for 1,318 yards and 13 touchdowns this past season.
Martin, a Burnsville native, finished his collegiate career with 177 tackles. Eden Prairie native Coughlin was a two-time All-Big Ten second-team selection as a rush end, stacking up 159 career tackles, including 40 for losses and 22 ½ sacks. Williamson, a Florida transfer originally from Georgia, had 57 tackles this past season and a pick-six.
Martin is the only drafted Gophers player to go pro without a teammate by his side, but he’s also the closest to home. He missed five games this past season, one on a suspension for violating team rules and four from foot and knee injuries, but he told reporters Saturday he was “pretty much 100 percent” after having surgery and rehabbing.
Johnson, a standout quarterback and basketball star at Minneapolis North before switching to receiver in college, also answered questions about how his draft projections ranged from the third round to the sixth, partly because he never publicly ran the 40-yard dash to prove his speed.
“This may sound crazy, but I feel like I already have something to prove, honestly,” Johnson said. “I mean, once you make it to the next level, the highest level, you have to restart your entire journey. Nothing’s guaranteed. Nothing is given to you. So I’m just going to continue to grow here and work my tail off, help contribute winning to a great organization.
“And I’m going to have fun doing what I do. That’s pretty much what got me here, so why change now?”