Oft-suspended Texas WR Daje Johnson: I am worth the investment

AUSTIN, Texas -- The first time Charlie Strong met Daje Johnson was a moment neither will forget.

Texas' head coach was enjoying his first day on the job last January when Johnson walked into the football facility flanked by two dudes. When the receiver introduced himself, Strong pounced.

"I said, 'Oh god, you're the guy I want.' I just ripped right into him," Strong said.

Johnson was Texas' most dynamic weapon on offense, but he'd already been suspended three times. He'd been held out of his first game as a freshman (violation of team rules), suspended for another as a sophomore (violation of team rules) and then ruled academically ineligible for Texas' bowl game in 2013. Strong was well aware.

"I told him it better not happen again," Strong said. "And I was like, 'Well, who are these two guys?' He says they're his buddies. 'So why are they with you?' He said they're going to work out."

The head coach shook his head. You're not bringing your boys into our weight room.

"He still had some growing up to do," Strong said.

And yet, in a year in which Strong had to kick nine Texas players off the team, Daje Johnson was not one of them. When Strong dismissed a group of players who violated team rules last July, Johnson certainly could've been cut loose -- he too violated unspecified team rules.

"I think it was pretty close," Johnson said.

Strong gave him one final chance: a four-game suspension that would only end if Johnson upheld his end of a personal conduct contract. He did just that, and now the dangerous receiver and returner is back for his senior year with a mission. He wants to prove Strong was right about him.

"I feel like he kind of sees the character within me," Johnson said. "I guess he sees much more in me. Player-wise and off the field, I feel like he sees way more in me to be the person I can be."

He has shown he can be so much more on the field. The local product from Pflugerville, Texas, had flashes of brilliance in his first two years. An 84-yard touchdown on the first play of Texas' 2012 win over Baylor. A 70-yarder against Kansas State. Two touchdowns in the 2013 opener. And, of course, the 85-yard punt return score to seal the deal against Oklahoma in 2013.

Strong likes to joke that Johnson hasn't made a play since, and he's not wrong. He touched the ball just 12 times on offense last season after his suspension and subsequent hamstring injury.

Asked whether he can trust Johnson, new receivers coach Jay Norvell shrugged.

"I don't know. I've heard Daje's name a lot. I've got a lot of receivers," he said. "We need guys that are dependable that we can count on. We're hoping he's going to be one of those guys."

Johnson knows his immaturity is the biggest reason why his career at Texas has been a frustrating one.

If the first three suspensions were warnings, Strong's discipline last summer was the wake-up call. Johnson has been down to his final strike for more than a year now.

"After that, everything clicked," he said. "I said, 'I've gotta chill out. I'm about to get kicked off the team. I can't be doing this no more, can't be acting like that.'"

He credits Texas strength coach Pat Moorer for much-needed tough love. He said he's tired of disappointing his family and his teammates. And he's grateful Strong still believes in him.

"I feel like there's a lot of people pulling for me," Johnson said. "I just want to prove them right. I don't want to be going out trying to be all 'what if?' 'He could've done this.' I ain't trying to do all that. I'm trying to be remembered. I am worth the investment."

That's why he was terrified in July when Strong called and asked if Johnson was still a member of his team.

Johnson, an aspiring rapper in his spare time, had posted his latest track online. This one had the unfortunate title of "Dealer" and the hook: "If you lookin' for the dealer/I got the plug probably catch him with the reefer." That got some clicks -- more than 28,000 plays on SoundCloud to date.

"At first," Johnson said, "I was like, 'Oh I'm about to get a whole bunch of views.'"

Then the Texas staff found out.

"And I'm like, 'Oh, dang, I made a bad decision again.'"

Johnson apologized to his coach and wasn't suspended. Strong saw it as another teachable moment. The spotlight on Johnson is bright, and he must represent the university better than that. Strong also gave him plenty of grief.

"I told him, 'Who would even buy that record? I mean, seriously,'" Strong joked.

If he can get out of his own way, Johnson can elevate Texas' offense this season. Strong said Johnson has come "a million miles" in their first year together. The troubled star he could've given up on wants to pay off his debt of gratitude.

"I'm just going to let it be known now: I'm not going to disappoint anybody," Johnson said.