By JOEL COLEMAN
In Cleveland, Ohio, Malcolm Johnson is getting ready to begin a career in the National Football League. The Browns fullback and former Mississippi State tight end has left Starkville in the rear view mirror as he seeks to build his professional career.
Back here in Mississippi though, should Johnson choose to look, he’d see his presence is still felt in the Bulldog locker room. Nowhere is his shadow more evident than in the game of MSU’s projected starting tight end Gus Walley.
“Everything that I know about the game today is due to Malcolm Johnson,” Walley said. “He taught me everything that I need to know.”
Walley considers himself fortunate. Upon his arrival to Mississippi State in 2012, Walley was able to quickly form a bond with Johnson thanks in large part to proximity.
“When I first got here, the old facility lockers were two-people all the way around,” Walley said. “(Johnson) was my locker mate. He was the first person that I knew on this team and he just took me under his wing and showed me everything that I needed to know.”
Coming into the 2015 season, Walley will likely get his biggest chance yet to show off all he’s learned from Johnson. He returns as the only tight end on the roster that caught a pass last season, finishing the year with four receptions for 49 yards and a touchdown. 35 of those yards and the score came in his collegiate debut against UAB.
With his mentor now out of the picture, Walley is most likely a safe bet to give those numbers a significant boost.
“He’s been doing a great job,” MSU tight ends coach Scott Sallach said. “He’s stepped into a leadership role and is performing at a high level. We need him to continue to do that.”
Sallach can see things seem to be clicking with Walley. To a point, it seems like lights switching on.
“All that you have to do is just watch him perform,” Sallach said. “It’s a lot different. It’s like anything else in the program. You see the older guys, they’ve been around. Gus knows what to do, how hard you’ve got to play and the intensity that you have to have.
“You look at it, relatively speaking, from where Gus has come from to where he is now, it’s not even close. We’ve still got a ways to go, but you can just tell a difference in his performance, his attitude, his demeanor and everything about him.”
Walley admits he’s in a different place now than he was a season ago. Even while contributing, the junior confesses that he was never really at ease during his previous stints on the field.
“Last year I was real uncomfortable out there,” Walley said. “I was thinking too much and didn’t play the game like I knew I was supposed to.”
More relaxed now, Walley can finally breathe when he lines up this fall. He can also begin passing along all he knows to his fellow tight ends.
Underneath Walley on the depth chart sits several guys with the potential to contribute, perhaps most notably Darrion Hutcherson and Justin Johnson.
Hutcherson, a 6-foot-7-inch, 260-pound senior, is MSU’s largest tight end in terms of height and weight. He’s also familiar with playing under the bright lights in the Southeastern Conference having seen action in all 13 games last year.
Justin Johnson, a true freshman, has really opened eyes this fall, catching on quickly and displaying a promising skill set. A former receiver out of Hoover High School in Birmingham, Alabama, Justin Johnson is earning high praise from coaches and teammates.
“(Justin Johnson) is an incredibly talented young man,” Sallach said. “I hate doing it because it’s disrespectful for Malcolm and disrespectful for (Justin Johnson), but he could be an upgraded version of Malcolm Johnson if….he keeps progressing in the right direction.
“He has God-given ability that not everybody in the room has.”
Walley has been impressed with both Hutcherson and Justin Johnson.
“Darrion Hutcherson is coming along good,” Walley said. “He is a big, strong body who fits the two tight end set perfectly. And (Johnson) is picking up on this offense really well. What they did at Hoover (High School) is the same that we are doing. It is just a different position for him. But he is picking up on it really well.”
Despite their talents, for Hutcherson, Justin Johnson or any other Bulldog tight end to have the chance to contribute consistently, Sallach says the key is for them to keep improving with each passing day.
“Every day is game day for us,” Sallach said. “You have to prove your worth to Coach Mullen, to Coach Hevesy, to Coach Gonzales, to Coach Knox, to Coach Johnson to other guys on the offense and defense to say, ‘You know what? We can count on this guy on third down. We can count on this guy on the road in the SEC.’ It’s a big challenge for those guys.”
It was all once a challenge for Walley too. Though Walley is far from a finished product himself, he can’t help but see how far he’s come in his career and he knows his teammates can progress too.
Maybe even one day, other MSU tight ends will look at Walley the same way he looks at Malcolm Johnson.
“Coming out of high school, I was a receiver just like he was,” Walley said. “And just like it was with him, it was foreign to me when I first came in. But he took me under his wing and taught me everything that I need to know about the game.
“Those are big shoes to fill. I feel a lot of pressure every day. But I come out, block everything out and just focus on my job. I just have to take it one day at a time.”
By JOEL COLEMAN