Johnson flashing brilliance early — but don’t tell him that


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Diontae Johnson makes a play during Steelers training camp in Latrobe, Pa. – MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

LATROBE, Pa. -- Diontae Johnson carries a softspoken, calm attitude off the field. From my first chat with Johnson in May at the Rooney Complex during OTAs to my most recent chat with him during Steelers training camp at Saint Vincent College, I keep leaving with the same impression of the Steelers' third-round pick out of Toledo: This kid is smooth.

He's not anxious. He's not giddy. He's short and purposeful with his words, focusing on football, on improvements and on being perfect.

No, seriously. He can't stop talking about his mistakes.

"They told me last night just kind of focus on the little mistakes," Johnson was saying. "They need me, so I gotta do a better job of doing what I got (to do) and just go out there and apply that information to the field. Little mental errors here and there. But it happens. It's a learning process, so just taking it one step at a time, trying to get better and learn from it."

Johnson has quickly made an impression at camp, being elevated to the first-team offense as Donte Moncrief has missed time with a finger injury. Despite his lack of experience and his high expectations, Johnson feels he's fitting right in with the starters.

"It's been smooth, just trying to get that groove in, try to do what I can to help out on the offense, play my part," he said.

But, yeah, those pesky mistakes still linger. He cherishes the chance to catch passes from Ben Roethlisberger — but he knows the responsibility that comes with it, as well. He doesn't want to just be "good" or "acceptable" when the situation at hand is catching passes from that guy on this Steelers offense.

"It's a big moment to get the opportunity to play with Big Ben and show him what I can do," Johnson said. "[I'm] just trying to be consistent and ... do what I can to help out on the offense, just try to make plays. I feel like I've been doing pretty good. A couple mistakes here and there, but you just gotta bounce back from them, keep going. There's always opportunity to get better, so that's what I'm focused on."

What Johnson may not have known was that he already impressed Roethlisberger before the first practice of training camp even opened. During the team's mandatory conditioning test, Johnson caught Roethlisberger's eye.

“I saw him run his conditioning test yesterday, and I don’t even think he opened [his mouth], like, he was barely breathing,” Roethlisberger said. “So you could tell, and I heard that he was here a lot in the offseason working, so you can tell that he really took that to heart, that he needed to get in shape. I’ve seen that so far, even though it’s early.”

I had to ask Johnson if he did anything special on this front. His answer didn't surprise me:

"Just running. For real, that's all you can do is run," Johnson said with a slight smile. "I took pride in doing that, because they said I needed to get in shape, so I just focused on that a lot this offseason, and I came back and showed that."

That right there is everything about Johnson in the early goings. He impressed Roethlisberger, a future Hall of Famer, and he had the chance to ham up the moment a bit. It's a big deal to be singled out by No. 7, and while Johnson recognizes that, he downplays the entire situation and instead focuses on the work. Just running. No big deal.

But it is a big deal. He's "just running" with the first string now, and "just running" the precise, smooth routes coaches and fans alike expected to see.

He's checking all the boxes. Now, Johnson just needs to stay healthy — he's missed time and been limited in the team's most recent practices with nagging injuries — keep working and bring this mindset and production into the preseason and beyond.

The rest will take care of itself.

"Nobody's perfect," he said. "I can only be me at the end of the day. I'm only human. I'm just learning."

Related: Carter breaks down Johnson's exceptional footwork 

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