|Collin Heimbach, AJ Johnson and Jewell Day make it extremely hard for opponents to shut down the Puget Sound receiving corps.
Puget Sound athletics photo by Kurt DeVoe (Heimbach), d3photography.com photo by Ronnie Glover (AJ Johnson, Jewell Day), photo illustration by D3sports.com
By Brian Lester
Line up AJ Johnson, Collin Heimbach and Jewell Day on the field at the same time and the Puget Sound wide receivers are a triple threat opponents would rather avoid dealing with.
At one point this season, the three were all averaging 100 yards per game. They are all still pretty close to that mark and have helped put the Loggers on pace for one of their best seasons in program history.
“I always tell the other guys that a defense is going to have to pick its poison.”
- AJ Johnson, one of three Puget Sound receivers averaging more than 96 yards per game
“When we go five wide and all three of us are on the field, defenses have to choose who they want to put the double team on and who they are are going to worry about,” Johnson said. “I always tell the other guys that a defense is going to have to pick its poison.”
Buzzing with confidence and blessed with the ability to make big plays on any given down, Johnson, Heimbach and Day are difference makers.
Johnson has the most receptions (48) through five games and the most yards (539). The junior has scored four touchdowns as well.
Heimbach and Day have scored seven touchdowns apiece and have 40 and 30 receptions, respectively. Heimbach, a senior, is just shy of 500 yards (495) for the year. Day, a junior, is closing in on that mark as well, rolling up 481 yards.
Here’s the thing, though. No one cares who has the most catches, the most yards or the most touchdowns. It’s one of the reasons why the Loggers, after back-to-back three-win seasons, are 4-1 for the first time since 2000 and are in the Northwest Conference race.
“The thing that’s really changed on the offensive side is that we’re playing more for each other,” Heimbach said. “There isn’t anyone worried about their stats, and that includes the quarterbacks. It’s about getting the win and doing whatever it takes to do that. We don’t have a selfish offense at all.”
Johnson seconds that, adding when he talks with someone after a game and is told he just put up great numbers, he is surprised.
“People will come up after the game and tell us how many yards or catches we had and it’s kind of a surprise because you’re not really thinking about that during the game,” Johnson said. “You are just thinking about playing for your teammates on the field.”
Day said a change in mindset has played a pivotal role in the Loggers’ turnaround and the success he and Johnson and Day are enjoying.
“I think one of the biggest changes from an offensive perspective as well as the perspective of the whole team, is our mentality seems different than last year,” Day said. “We felt like last year to some extent that when we got down and things got rough we just kind of gave up. But this team, we are all fighters, we all love competing, and when the going gets tough, we all come together and rally around each other.”
Day elaborates on that never-say-die mentality, bringing up a game against Lewis & Clark last week. The Loggers trailed the Pioneers 20-0 in the first half before rallying for a 34-22 victory, outscoring their opponent 20-2 in the second half.
“Even though we were down 20, never for a second did we believe we were going to lose that game,” Day said. “We knew we were going to come back. “We all rallied behind each other and have that culture that we are going to get it done no matter what. We are going to find a way to will our way to a win.”
A year ago, the trio combined for five touchdowns. Only Johnson had more than 20 catches, racking up 28.
Now, through an improved offense and the three being put in a position to make big plays, Johnson, Heimbach and Day are in the midst of the best seasons of their careers.
“It is a core tenet of our offense to take what the defense gives us,” Puget Sound head coach Jeff Thomas said. “We feel strongly about the quality and depth of our wide receivers, and we love that they have stepped up time and again this year to make big plays for us.”
Day said making those plays isn’t a difficult thing to do.
“It’s instinctive to go up and find the ball when it’s thrown near one of us,” Day said. “A lot of my yardage comes from long scoring plays. I have the ability to be an explosive playmaker.”
Heimbach said having the mindset to make those big plays is what fuels his success. For Johnson, it’s about being physical.
“I’m a bigger receiver, so I can bully the corners downfield. Collin and Jewell create speed mismatches on the outside,” Johnson said. “We just create a lot of mismatches. We all have a lot of versatility.”
And that puts defenses in a tight spot.
“I’ll be lined up and hear someone yelling ‘No. 4 is in this spot. Watch this or watch that.’ And I’m thinking you can watch me but you have Jewell and Collin over on the other side and you have to worry about them, too,” Johnson said. “I get just as excited when they score as I do when I score. We are always the first ones to each other when one of us scores.”
Their success on the field starts in practice.
“We’re always pushing each other during the week," Heimbach said. "We have great cohesion as a receiver corps and we are always going to play hard for each other.”
Day adds that when one of them isn’t doing their best in practice, they hear about it right away.
“I know if I’m slacking or not going as hard as I should be, or I’m just going through the motions, I have the other receivers pushing me to do better,” Day said. “And in games, we are always there for each other, to pick each other up. I know my teammates always have my back.”
As for expectations, the Loggers have their sights set on their first winning season since 2015 and hopefully a spot in the postseason.
“We all want to win because, historically, we’ve been a losing program, and no one likes losing,” Johnson said. “We really emphasized in the postseason to go hard on every play. Hard work is contagious. If one guy is working hard, it’s going to pick up everyone else.”
And if Day, Johnson and Heimbach keep playing like they have, anything is possible.
“We’re striving to win a conference championship and go to the playoffs,” Day said. “As a team, we don’t want to leave anything on the field. Our coach keeps us focused on every little thing and we expect to do great things. We feel like we can compete with anyone.”