Where’s number 83?

Star wide receiver attempting to play through pain

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Relentlessness. Commitment. Pride. 

These three words are plastered on every shirt in the UB Football weight room. They are a guideline for how to act and a reminder of what it means to wear blue and white on game days.

Senior wide receiver Anthony Johnson has lived up to these words.

For the past two-and-a-half games, fans and opponents have been wondering where Johnson is. Johnson led the Bull with 1,356 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. Johnson was in full uniform on the sidelines against Army and Central Michigan, but recorded less than 10 snaps combined in the two contests.

The team only announced it as a leg injury due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.

“[With] Anthony it has been day-to-day, week-to-week, you know I don't know,” said head coach Lance Leipold. “I know this, the young man is really trying. To even go through and try warmups it's not like he's trying to shut it down but if things don't change then we will have to shut it down for a while and see what we can do. I know he wants to play and play badly but at the same time, we need to make sure we get him back on the field at the right time.”

Johnson has been playing for more than himself this season.

Johnson lost his childhood best friend 22-year-old De’Mon Davis less than 24 hours before kickoff against Temple. Johnson scored the game-winning touchdown with less than a minute remaining.

Johnson’s Twitter bio features the verse Mark 11:22: “Have faith in God.”

Johnson’s faith in God can be explained by his unconventional path to being one of the top wide receivers in the nation. Due to academic reasons, Johnson ended up at two different junior colleges before coming to Buffalo. When he arrived, he did not play. Johnson was a redshirt and could only watch from the sidelines as UB went 2-10 that season.

“I think all of it is frustrating,” Leipold said. “I think any player that goes through an injury after all the work they put in. In our sport, you only get 12 opportunities, you don't get 30 basketball games, 60 baseball games whatever that is. You are limited. Every time one or two of those are taken away it bothers them, the ones that are truly passionate about the game.”

When the news broke of Johnson’s struggle during Saturday’s game, he simply tweeted a heart and a dove emoji.  The usually quiet Johnson spoke out about the pain he feels for the loss of Davis.

Johnson caught six passes for the team leading the Bulls with 76 yards against Temple. On his 29-yard score Johnson appeared to be wrapped up when he made his catch, but the Temple defender slipped off and Johnson broke free.

Like a true Bull, Johnson saw red in the end zone and ran towards it with a heavy heart.

Johnson is the highest-ranked Bulls NFL prospect since Khalil Mack and his future and current success of the Bulls offense rides on his ability to play.

Within the two weeks that Johnson hasn't been able to play, Chris Trapasso of CBS Sports dropped him from 13th to 29th in his mock drafts. 

Trapasso said his stock has not changed much but it has shown him how much of a “game-changer” Johnson is with the decline of Buffalo’s passing offense the past two weeks.

Leipold said, “Anthony can’t worry about his draft status” and he will get his opportunity to show his ability “one way or another.”

“It's a good feeling but at the end of the day, I really haven't been paying attention to all that stuff,” Johnson said in an interview in August. “I just come out here and work on what I need to do and helping my teammates get better.”

For the Bulls and Johnson, the focus of this week remains on beating the Akron Zips. Johnson will be dressed to play, according to Leipold.

Leipold knows people are focused on seeing Johnson warm up and jokes about the possibility of an Anthony Johnson and non-Anthony Johnson game plan. When he is out there, Johnson is trying to see what he can do.

Akron ranks second in the Mid-American Conference in rushing defense and makes the Bulls rely heavily on the pass. Whether Johnson is playing or not, the goal to win remains the same.

Nathaniel Mendelson is the sports editor and can be reached at nathaniel.mendelson@ubspectrum.com