BURNABY MOUNTAIN — Caelin Johnson may be the baby of the bunch within a burgeoning quintet of Simon Fraser receivers trying to catch a rising star these days atop Burnaby Mountain.
Yet based on one of the most memorable pure freshman break-out performances in program history this past Saturday, albeit as part of the team’s 56-20 loss at Linfield, the formerly anonymous 6-foot-2, 181-pound wide-out from Seattle’s Ballard High looks like a player ahead of his time.
That his performance came as part of a lopsided defeat might grease the skids for naysayers of a program struggling mightily to find competitive relevance, yet know this: It’s no easy task to come straight out of a COVID-affected spring season of football, like Johnson did only a few short months ago in Seattle, have limited time to acquaint yourself with a new country, classmates and team, and then in your first game as a targetable collegiate receiver, make nine catches for 193 yards and three touchdowns.
For his efforts, Johnson was selected the GNAC’s Offensive Player of the Week.
“I am always just trying to be a big-play guy,” Johnson told Varsity Letters after he added to his one-yard touchdown grab from quarterback Justin Seiber with 16 seconds in the opening half of last Saturday’s game, with scoring grabs of 63- and 11-yards over the final 5:03 of play to make the final score complete.
“I just want to make something happen,” continued Johnson, who along with the likes of Riley Morrison, Dallas Dixon, Aidan Pearce and Robert Meadors has formed a cadre that might be the most identifiable part of the Simon Fraser football team outside of dual quarterbacks Seiber and Brandon Niksich. “I’m super comfortable playing on the outside with the ball. I just want to make a spark.”
Simon Fraser (0-2, 0-0) will be in tough when it officially christens its $20 million SFU Stadium at Terry Fox Field this Saturday (6 p.m.) in its Great Northwest Athletic Conference season-opening test against the powerhouse Central Washington Wildcats (1-1, 0-0).
Yet as the growth of SFU football continues under head coach Mike Rigell, there are still moments within the program’s trial-by-fire reality when incredible things can occur.
And one of those was the chemistry displayed Saturday between Seiber and Johnson. If viewed in the vacuum of thrower to catcher, it could have held its own in whatever era of the football club’s 50-plus year history you might care to name.
For his part, Seiber, whose most recent touchdown strike before Saturday came in 2019 to none other than current New York Giants tight end Rysen John, dampening his praise was impossible.
“With Caelin, the thing that really stands out is that he is a true freshman who only came up here a month ago, and who against Idaho (a 68-0 loss Sept. 4) didn’t get many chances,” began Seiber, who in just three quarters of playing time Saturday went 26-of-43 for 297 yards and three scores.
“But the thing that is really crazy is the confidence that he has,” the pivot added. “He had never really had a touch in a (college) game before, and he goes out there and he’s just so confident. He’s coming up to me on the sidelines and he’s letting me know ‘Hey, I can beat my guy.’ He backed that up today. That kid’s confidence for a true freshman is just unbelievable.”
Yet it gets even better when you begin to hear the mentality to play the game that seems instilled in him coming out his high school career with those Ballard High Beavers.
Last season, Washington high school football opted not to play its traditional fall season, yet unlike B.C., it reconvened in the spring, and when all was said a done, all Johnson did was earn first all-star team status in one of the state’s most time-honoured and tradition-laden circuits, the 3A Metro League, which boasts preps-to-pros programs like O’Dea, Garfield, Seattle Prep and Eastside Catholic.
You need only watch him play to understand this, and the perfect example was the first of his two fourth-quarter TD grabs last weekend.
In staking claim to the football, and in expressing the satisfaction he felt in playing the position the way he deems it should be played, well, let’s just say Johnson got a little excited.
The Linfield broadcast crew wondered out loud about it, asking if Johnson knew what the score of the game was at time.
Ask the freshman about it and his answer is refreshing, especially for a team searching for its identity.
“I don’t think of receiver as being a finesse position at all,” said Johnson. “I believe in competing for the ball. You should be attacking the ball just as hard as any defensive back is attacking you.”
In Simon Fraser’s NCAA era, these are the kinds of words sure to meet the approval of such past grads as Lemar Durant and Rysen John.
Those two names, however, are B.C. high school products.
For a kid who ticks a lot of boxes and who hails from a virtual orchard of competing programs, what was the tug to look past border issues, leaving home and venturing north to some place called Burnaby, especially when his senior season at Ballard had left him such a highly-credentialed player?
“One of my buddies from high school is Ian Crocker,” Johnson continued of the ex-SFU linebacking recruit who has since transferred to FCS Portland State.
Crocker was part of former head coach Thomas Ford’s boffo 2019 class, one which included the likes of Niksich and cornerback Jerrell Cummings, the GNAC 2019 Rookie of the Year.
“He came up here two years ago and he was able to start as a true freshman,” added Johnson of Crocker. “He told me ‘You go up there and you compete in fall camp and you can earn a spot.’ So I just put my head down and started to grind.”
With hopeful fortification in the future and a very youthful core of talented quarterbacks, Johnson is one of those players who can indeed begin to form a new identity so desperately needed by the program.
It may be only one game, but Rigell is hopeful it’s the start of better things to come.
“He is a freshman that has all the confidence in the world,” Rigell began. “He played big time ball in high school and he has trained for this moment. This is just the tip of the iceberg of how great he can be. It was great to see him come into his own.”
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