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Quacking the Roster: WR Transfers Tez Johnson and Traeshon Holden

Film review of the 2021 and 2022 seasons of Johnson at Troy and Holden at Alabama as starting wide receivers

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 21 Middle Tennessee at Troy
Troy Trojans wide receiver Tez Johnson (15) carries the ball after a reception in the game between the Troy Trojans and the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders
Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Tez Johnson, Troy

Johnson was recruited to Troy in the 2020 class as a low 3-star (.8361) in the 24/7 composite. He played in nearly every game as a true freshman, though only getting one or two catches each outing (that season didn’t count against his eligibility due to the NCAA’s Covid holiday) and has three to play two remaining. Over the last two seasons, Johnson has been Troy’s leading receiver in both catches and yards by wide margins, with a combined 123 receptions for nearly 1,600 yards in 2021 and 2022. The transfer to Oregon reunites Johnson with his adoptive brother #13 QB Nix, with whom he played at Pinson HS in Alabama, coached by their father.

I acquired and charted the film of Johnson’s last two seasons. What jumps off the tape is his immediate burst and smooth acceleration. Troy mostly had him playing out of the slot, which is to be expected for his stature (5’10”, 150 lbs), but the way that he was consistently burning defensive backs and weaving through defenders for extra yardage made me think that he should have been used on deep shots more often and given an expanded role at outside receiver. Johnson has the speed to really take the top off the defense and I didn’t think Troy’s staff exploited that as much as it could have. Some examples:

(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)

  1. :00 – Johnson (jersey #15) is lined up in the slot here with a safety over him in man, running a simple flag route. Easy pickings for his acceleration, he has the DB cooked as soon as he crosses his feet.
  2. :13 – The poor high safety here gets abused twice, first on the inside step that sends him flying before Johnson whips to the sideline, and again when he cuts back in for more yards. The flag was for roughing the passer.
  3. :28 – Just a little switch-wheel against man, and there’s no way the DB is catching Johnson from behind. If the defense hadn’t hedged its bets on 3rd & 1 with a high safety this would have been a walk-in TD.
  4. :44 – The camera operator botched the sideline angle of this play but the endzone camera got the whole thing, a 15-yard post route that Johnson turned into a 74-yard touchdown slicing through multiple tacklers.

In interviews, Johnson lists route-running and pass-catching as his best attributes, and he’s not wrong about that. I think he shows a lot of technical refinement in climbing up on DB’s toes, breaking off cuts to get coverage wrong-footed, and adjusting to the ball (his QB had some arm talent issues and was frequently under pressure, with the 126th worst sack rate in 2022 and not much better the year before). Some examples:

  1. :00 – The nickel right over Johnson is blitzing, but watch the field safety’s hips during this play. That skip-stutter is so smooth and quick, the safety buys he’s going outside to the post right before Johnson crisply breaks it in and earns himself a clean catch and the space to lean across for a 1st down.
  2. :08 – The artificial turf pellets make the toe drag here apparent, after an inside step to move the DB Johnson cuts out for a quick 1st down.
  3. :15 – If this ball is delivered where it should it’s a 75-yard touchdown, this corner is totally cooked on the long wheel. Instead Johnson has to slow up to catch an underthrown ball, but he has the space to do it.
  4. :26 – This corner starts with a seven-yard cushion and Johnson is still burning him, but another underthrown ball requires a big adjustment. It was good to see Johnson getting some more reps on the outside outside toward the end of his last season in Troy, however.

The remarkable thing about Johnson’s time at Troy is that despite spending the last two seasons as far and away the team’s top target, it still seems like he was fairly underutilized, and that’s reflected in his statlines. In games I charted he was only on the field for about half of all of Troy’s offensive snaps, and of the downfield passing attempts he was on the field for, he got fewer than 29% of targets.

In raw stats, Johnson’s yards per reception numbers seem modest at first glance – 11.0 in 2021 and 15.4 in 2022. But it became immediately obvious why that was when I turned on the tape: Troy used him extensively as both a screen pass receiver and a sweep man with a push pass instead of a handoff (which is marked down as a pass instead of a rush in the statbook, obnoxiously), but unfortunately the Trojans blocked both of these types of plays quite poorly. As a result, Johnson has a ton of negative yardage pass receptions dragging his average down through no fault of his own.

Through charting, I was able to separate sweeps as rushing plays and screens as their own category of plays, and calculate Johnson’s downfield-only number, which came out to 22.3 yards per reception. That’s an excellent number to be sustained for a leading receiver and a better one to use for comparing to other wideouts.

From watching his film, the added value that Johnson brings is creating yards after the catch. Even setting aside the misleading screens and sweeps, the majority of his downfield catches were short and intermediate passes that he took big with extra moves, and I was also impressed that bigger defenders didn’t intimidate him and were virtually never able to knock the ball away. PFF College’s writeup agreed with that assessment, attributing Johnson’s 89.9 grade to his 3.52 YPRR score, both second in all of FBS on their charts (behind only Ohio St’s Marvin Harrison). Some examples:

  1. :00 – Eight yards of YAC by putting his shoulder through an SEC defender.
  2. :10 – I had a couple dozen plays just like this on my tally sheet, little hitches where Johnson would get immediately clobbered by bigger linebackers, but never had a problem hanging onto the ball.
  3. :20 – This one is 23 yards after the catch. The ball is above his helmet so he’s got to smoothly secure it and turn while keeping his momentum. Watch carefully to see a nice little move in stride getting the the boundary safety to back off a little to buy him a few more.
  4. :30 – Johnson used this spin move to break tackles several times, it was pretty fun to watch.

In addition to screens and outside runs, Johnson was also used on special teams as a return man, on gadget plays (he threw for one touchdown and would have had another if the receiver didn’t drop it), and even as a blocker, at which he was surprisingly aggressive. Here are a few examples of Johnson as an able role-player:

  1. :00 – This was the most effective screen pass I saw Troy run in two years of film (with Johnson on the field anyway), which is kind of amazing. The blocking still isn’t really there, he has to get to the sideline with speed and not because the X has outside leverage.
  2. :08 – Johnson is on the top of the screen, blocking the CB on this run play. Pretty good job, the RB takes that gap and gets a 1st down. That’s future teammate Tysheem Johnson coming down from his safety spot to make the tackle.
  3. :15 – Here’s the most effective endaround, and again the blocking is still problematic — I think that TE probably could have been flagged and possibly the slowest footed RG on the planet hasn’t cleared out the second level – so Johnson has to redirect his pathing.
  4. :31 – On this play Johnson’s post route is clearing the DB for his teammate’s square-in under it, which he accomplishes, but then he runs with him the length of the field and makes two different blocks en route to a touchdown.

Traeshon Holden, Alabama

Auburn v Alabama Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Holden was recruited to Alabama as part of the 2020 class, rated a low 4-star (.9132) in the 24/7 composite. He redshirted his first year, then was the sixth-leading receiver in both 2021 and 2022.

Last year was an odd one for the Alabama offense – after losing the top four receiving targets from the 2021 offense to the NFL, Holden was in line to be one of Heisman-winning quarterback Bryce Young’s top targets, and it looked that way for the first month or so of the season. But instead of taking advantage of Holden’s and several other talent wideouts’ speed on deep routes, offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien instead developed a very screen- and short-pass heavy offense with 12-personnel sets and even six-OL formations, much to Alabama fans’ irritation. The leading receiver became the transfer running back, and an injury to Young midseason led to an even more run-heavy offense with the backup QB tending to scramble early and often.

By mid-October Holden was only on the field every other drive, in November he sat out a couple of regular season games, and in December he entered the transfer portal before bowl game practices began. Going only by on-field performance, it’s difficult to say why Holden was marginalized. I don’t think he’s a perfect player – he has some negative plays on my tally sheet that run usual gamut for a wide receiver from drops to missed blocking assignments to even a ball that ricocheted off his outstretched hand and was intercepted (I don’t think that one was his fault, really, it was tipped at the line of scrimmage and had a funny trajectory).

But they’re not out of line with the usual frequency of negative plays for starters on any team, including the other wideouts at Alabama in 2022 whom I was charting alongside him, and those players didn’t seem to have been sidelined as harshly. Setting aside the possibility of personality conflicts or off-field issues which I have no ability to investigate, I suspect that he was just frustrated with a snakebit season and the direction that the offense was going and wanted a change of scenery.

As a result, even when I acquired his 2021 film when he wasn’t a starter, I had a hard time assembling enough wide-angle tape to answer the essential question of how good Holden is at creating separation from coverage. Part of this is because the majority of Alabama’s games are broadcast by CBS, which prefers obnoxiously tight camera angles (to say nothing of their color commentator), but the other reason is that Holden’s role both years in O’Brien’s offense was usually on the side of the field that wasn’t part of the QB’s active reads in the progression. According to my tally sheet, for designed downfield passing plays on which Holden was on the field only about 37% even had him on the live side of the play, and needless to say his frequency of actual targets is far fewer. So I’m left with looking at the relatively small segment of tape in which he was actually targeted or part of the read, and even with two years’ worth of film I’m running into significant sample size issues and I’m not entirely confident in my conclusions.

The good news about Holden’s tape is that when he’s actually on it, he gets high grades. His size, route-running, acceleration, and hands all look top-notch. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Holden (jersey #11) is playing Z here, although he switched freely with X and played some out of the slot as well. Textbook comeback here – gets a cushion from the CB respecting his speed, secures the ball just past the line to gain for a 1st down, nice use of hands and turning his body to protect it.
  2. :15 – Here he’s the No. 2 receiver to the boundary in this empty set, running a slant against a DB who’s fairly far off. Nice catch in stride and gets extra yards going through a couple tacklers, for a total gain of 20.
  3. :30 – This play shouldn’t have seemed so remarkable but at this point in the season seeing the protection hold up for a long-developing drag actually was. He has to double catch the ball but gets it locked in as the tackler arrives for a 17-yard gain.
  4. :40 – O’Brien’s playbook had a ton of RB screens in it but curiously few WR screens. Holden shows on this one he didn’t really need great blocking to pull it off since he could easily out-accelerate the defense (although I have no idea why Auburn is sending both inside backers against an empty set).

When I ran Holden’s charts through statistical regression, the computer flagged something unusual for a wide receiver, which is just how many times Holden had to catch a pass right before getting crunched by a defender (against Arkansas he was walked off the field by the trainers for one of these, though he returned in the same quarter). There was something kind of off in Alabama’s pass placement in 2022 that’s beyond the scope of this project to nail down, but at any rate Holden’s PBU numbers are extremely low despite taking a lot of hits and he generated a lot of hard yards after contact, so I was impressed with his toughness after the catch. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Young leads Holden way too far with this pass, he should have settled him down about two yards back. As it is Holden has to go up for it and the corner gets to put a shoulder in his ribs. But he hangs onto the ball like he should.
  2. :15 – Cat blitz here so it’s an in route against a safety, not much of a challenge to make that break for Holden’s talent and he leaves the defender in the dust. The other safety puts his shoulder into him but Holden has gotten his 10 extra hard yards.
  3. :25 – This RPO timing is about a quarter second late, a problem the Tide had all year. It means the catch happens right before contact with the safety, but Holden hangs on despite losing his mouthpiece.
  4. :34 – Another throw that’s unnecessarily a little high and late, with Holden getting clocked by a projected 6th round draft pick at linebacker. Pops right up.

The last two seasons have been uncharacteristically poor offensive line performances for the Crimson Tide, particularly in pass protection, and between that and Young’s running QB midseason replacement, there was an awful lot of scrambling on film when reviewing Holden’s time in Tuscaloosa. I thought he turned out to be a very good ally to have in the scramble drill - getting himself open, presenting his numbers regardless of where he was on the field, and improvising blocks once the QB tucked the ball. Some examples:

  1. :00 – Watch Holden’s relationship to the linebacker on the replay angle, as soon as that guy tracks the QB over Holden clears him with his numbers showing to get the catch.
  2. :18 – This is an in-breaking route from Holden as the X-receiver (before the camera cuts him off for no good reason), so when he re-emerges he must have reversed himself to follow the QB’s scramble to the left and catch the ball with room to run into open grass.
  3. :27 – The backup QB is in here, and it’s unsurprising at this point that he wouldn’t throw the ball to Holden’s out-route even though he’s open. Pretty good runner though, and Holden improvises a block downfield as soon as he crosses the line of scrimmage.
  4. :45 – Almost loses his footing here after the bump from the DB, but Holden gets himself turned around when the QB breaks the pocket and makes a diving catch for the touchdown.

I noticed some chatter on Alabama boards that Holden might not be an enthusiastic blocker and some speculation this could have gotten him in hot water, so I paid extra attention when watching his film to see if that was true. I did notice that when he was on the opposite side of a rushing play and his role was just to keep a DB occupied, he tended to conserve his energy, but in my experience that’s typical for both WRs and DBs across the sport. On the other hand, when he was throwing the key block on a play, he graded out pretty well on my tally sheet – not perfect, he’d get beat about 12% of the time (they get 4-star defenders in the SEC too), but high marks for engagement and technique. Some examples:

  1. :00 – One of almost two dozen swing passes to the back I watched this year. Holden could be doing a better job of getting outside leverage but he has the DB engaged enough for the back to make a 7-yard gain.
  2. :08 – Yet another running back screen, this one has Holden blocking the CB downfield and getting them both out of the back’s way as he accelerates for the endzone.
  3. :34 – Here’s Holden in the slot with a nickel over him, classic outside counter run. Great technique here for WR blocking, he makes a little outside move for the pressing DB to mirror that way, then uses it to get inside leverage and turn him away from the play. Excellent motor too, working his guy five yards downfield and another five (or more) laterally.
  4. :41 – In the slot again, against a 33 defense so that’s a linebacker over and inside of him. Holden does a pretty decent job sealing him inside, and gets there fast enough that the back can slip right behind his heels and get the ball over the line to gain (the chyron flashes 3rd down but the refs gave him the 1st down on forward progress after review).