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Getting a chance: Ex-Willmar star makes an impact at St. John's

After two long years on the scout team, Tyler Johnson is starting at tight end for the fourth-ranked Johnnies, who play Tommies on Saturday

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St. John's tight end Tyler Johnson (No. 88) celebrates after scoring his first career touchdown Sept. 21 in Collegeville. Johnson is a junior from Willmar. Rafael Alvarez/Special to the West Central Tribune

COLLEGEVILLE — When you’re one of 180 or so players like Tyler Johnson was the past two years, it’s a little hard to distinguish yourself.

That’s the challenge the St. John’s University tight end had to deal with his first two seasons with the fourth-ranked Johnnies, who suited up 192 players at the beginning of this season.

Johnson, a 2017 Willmar High School graduate, understood the numbers situation and awaited his turn. When seniors Tommy Auger and Jared Streit graduated after 2018’s 12-1 season, Johnson believed he was finally, sincerely in the mix for playing time.

It has happened.

Johnson caught his first career touchdown pass in the Johnnies’ 33-21 victory over Gustavus Adolphus on Sept. 21 and started Saturday in St. John’s 19-0 win over sixth-ranked Bethel on Saturday.

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He’s the projected starter for the Johnnies’ MIAC game with St. Thomas at 1:10 p.m. Saturday at Allianz Field in St. Paul. A crowd of about 20,000 is expected. The game has long been sold out.

“I would definitely say it’s the biggest thrill,” Johnson said of the TD catch against the Gusties.

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St. John's University football player Tyler Johnson is a junior from Willmar. Courtesy of St. John's University

Johnson has rotated at tight end with Pat Kemper, a senior from St. Paul’s Cretin-Derham Hall, who had two touchdown receptions in St. John’s 61-6 homecoming win Oct. 5 over Augsburg.

Kemper had a minor ankle sprain, which left Johnson on the field for a good stretch of the game before the coaching staff tried to work in as many players as possible. At St. John’s, that’s always a lot. That led to the starting assignment against Bethel, which suffered its first loss Saturday. Johnson, a three-sport star at Willmar in football, basketball and baseball, relishes the advanced role with Auger and Streit gone.

Good mentors

“Tommy and Jared were great role models,” Johnson said. “I knew when they graduated, there’d be a slot open and me and Jack had a chance to step in.

“To me, it means a lot. I’d been on the scout team for two years. I was never on the travel squad. I never went to any of the road games (in uniform).”

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This season has been a huge change. He is doing a lot more game film preparation. College football, even at the NCAA Division III level, has been an adjustment.

With the Johnnies, he spent two seasons on the scout team, running the offenses of each St. John’s opponent in order to get the defense ready for that week’s game.

“It’s a lot of preparation,” Johnson said.

He’s listed at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds and also played two seasons of baseball with the Johnnies, but said he won’t be playing this spring. Instead, he’s focused on school. He’s a mathematics major on a secondary education track who would like to teach and coach football in high school.

Family connection

He’s also got a relative at St. John’s and St. Benedict this year. Classes are co-ed and offered on both campuses. Hannah Johnson is a first-year student at St. Ben’s expected to be a contributor in the rotation on the Bennies’ basketball team.

Looking for a school, he said his decision came down to Concordia-Moorhead and St. John’s.

“Basically, half the student population (at Willmar) goes to Concordia,” Johnson said. “(Concordia head coach Terry) Horan (a Willmar graduate) is friends with my dad.”

His decision came down to connecting with the coaching staff at St. John’s. For Johnson, that meant both football coach Gary Fasching and baseball coach Jerry Haugen. Haugen’s also an assistant football coach.

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At Willmar, he missed a good chunk of his senior basketball season with a knee injury. Fasching explained that’s why Johnson got a bit of a late start in getting playing time right away at St. John’s. He also said that Johnson is a hard worker who has earned it.

That would coincide with what his high-school coach said about him. Jon Konold coached him during his days at Willmar.

“He was Mr. Everything for us,” Konold said. “He was our Tim Tebow, a running back, defensive end and linebacker for two years.

“He was so smart, really smart and a really good athlete,” Konold said.

He’s happy that Johnson’s getting a chance to play for a nationally-ranked team.

“We saw him a little bit over the summer and I know he wanted to be an everyday player,” Konold said. “He was really excited about this season.

“I’m glad they gave him an opportunity.”

Next up is the Tommies. It’s considered the biggest rivalry not only the MIAC or Division III, but one of the biggest in the country. The St. Thomas/St. John’s game in 2017 drew 37,355 fans to Target Field, an NCAA Division III record.

This season, the Tommies are 3-0 in the conference and 4-1 overall. Their lone loss was 21-19 Sept. 28 at Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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St. John's tight end Tyler Johnson (88) runs a pass route and looks for the ball in the end zone Sept. 21 in Collegeville. Johnson caught a touchdown pass in the Johnnies' 33-21 win over Gustavus Adolphus. Rafael Alvarez/Special to the West Central Tribune

St. Thomas needs the win over St. John’s to stay in the post-season playoff picture. In Division III, two losses probably won’t cut it. And St. John’s needs the win to stay in the national title hunt. Last year, that ended with a quarterfinal loss to eventual national champion Mary-Hardin Baylor of Belton, Texas. That was a 21-18 loss that ended the Johnnies’ 12-1 season.

Besides football, Johnson is an advocate for St. John’s after two-plus years on campus.

“I would say, at least check out the campus,” he said. “Just check it out.

“Get out, talk to people. When you do, it becomes really hard to say no. Not everyone’s an athlete, but we have a lot. It’s full of great people and they do everything they can to help you be successful.”

Local ties at SJU

Here’s a list of West Central Tribune area athletes on the St. John’s University football roster this season:

  • Calvin Burg, Paynesville, 5-11, 170, Fr. DB

  • Thaniel Cebulla, BBE, 6-2 200, Fr. DB

  • Matt Connolly, Benson, 6-1, 210, So, DB

  • Trevor Hemmesch, Paynesville, 6-1, 270, Fr. OL

  • Tyler Johnson, Willmar, 6-3, 235, Jr., TE

  • Cameron Murphy, Willmar, 6-5, 290, So. OL

  • Sam Oehrlein, Paynesville, 5-10 170 Fr. DB

  • Ty Roelofs, Willmar, 6-1, 185, Fr. DB

  • Gavin Rupp, Minnewaska, 6-6 310 So. OL

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St. John's tight end Tyler Johnson catches a touchdown pass Sept. 21 against Gustavus Adolphus at Collegeville. The Johnnies won, 33-21. Rafael Alvarez/Special to the West Central Tribune

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