The good news is Johnston has learned that unforeseen hurdles aren’t always a bad thing. Patterson surprisingly left TCU late in the 2021 season after 21 years, paving the way for first-year coach Sonny Dykes, who has led the third-ranked Horned Frogs (12-1) to the College Football Playoff semifinals.
They’ll face No. 2 Michigan (13-0) on Saturday at the Fiesta Bowl.
“Obviously, it turned out pretty good,” Johnston said with a grin. “I can’t complain.”
Johnston leads the Horned Frogs with 903 yards receiving and five touchdowns despite a slow start and a midseason ankle injury that limited his production.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound receiver is expected to be a coveted prize in the upcoming NFL draft. His combination of size, speed and strong hands has some evaluators saying he will be the first receiver drafted and a potential top 10 pick.
On Saturday, he will try to make life miserable for the Wolverines. He is more healthy than he has been for much of the season and he had four catches for 139 yards against Kansas State in the Big 12 championship game on Dec. 3.
One thing teammates love about him: Johnston is decidely low maintenence.
“The kid’s an extremely hard worker and a great person to be around,” quarterback and Heisman Trophy-runner-up Max Duggan said. “He wants to show up and grow to work. He wants to practice. He wants to do all the little stuff and the dirty stuff. He wants to lift weights.
“I think that’s what makes him such a good player. Obviously, we know what he is talent-wise, but the type of person he is makes him special.”
Johnston’s one of a core group of TCU players – including Duggan and cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson – who decided to stay with the Horned Frogs despite Patterson’s departure. It helped that Dykes had a good reputation around the program because he was an offensive analyst on the 2017 team, which finished with an 11-3 record.
“I was ready from Coach Dykes’ first meeting – sitting right up front,” Johnston said. “Embracing everything and listening to what he had to say. I just kept my mind on TCU football and not who is coaching TCU football.”
Hodges-Tomlinson – also a potential first-round NFL draft pick – said adapting and thriving during a coaching change has been useful and could help in the pros.
“At the end of the day, you have to handle what’s at hand, no matter what comes with it,” Hodges-Tomlinson said. “It happens like that in the NFL. You might get a new coach. You never know. New coordinator or something. So being able to handle change is the main goal.”
Johnston has had a couple mammoth games this season, including 14 receptions for 206 yards and a touchdown against Kansas. One week later, he had eight catches for 180 yards and a touchdown vs. Oklahoma State.
He also had a touchdown catch against Texas in a 17-10 win. Patterson – who is now an assistant coach at Texas – was on the opposing sideline. Johnston said it was strange, particularly when Patterson was doing the “Hook `em Horns” sign, but they’ve stayed in touch.
The receiver said Patterson and his wife texted him after his ankle injury earlier this season, wishing him well.
“It was hard to get mad,” Johnston said. “You can’t stay somewhere forever. Everybody’s time comes to an end, so I just tried to put that in perspective. I just gave him my best wishes and hoped the best for him moving forward.”
The successful transition to Dykes has made moving on much easier. The Horned Frogs were 11-11 during Johnston’s first two seasons under Patterson. Now they’re two wins away from being the national champions.
“To actually make it this far, it’s something that you can’t imagine,” Johnston said. “You can prepare for it, but once you’re here, it’s like, `I’m really here.’
“I worked my butt off for this, but still, you’ve got to sit back and say I’m really here.”