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Apollos WR Charles Johnson finds success in Orlando

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KINGSLAND, Ga. -- Orlando Apollos head coach Steve Spurrier didn't take long to come to the conclusion he had something special with wide receiver Charles Johnson.

Spurrier knew the Alliance of American Football's current receiving leader was an excellent fit for his offense at the onset of training camp.

"We're out there throwing the ball around every day, so he was easy to notice how he could catch the ball, and, obviously, he knows how to get open," Spurrier told NFL.com after Wednesday's practice. "That's a pretty good combination."

A fine mixture, indeed, as the 6-foot-2, 217-pound Johnson has put that skill set to good use by entering Week 7 action with 33 catches for 521 yards, both league-highs, and three touchdowns while averaging 15.8 yards per catch.

Still, it wasn't always this easy for Johnson, who entered the NFL in 2013 as a seventh-round pick with the Green Bay Packers. The Cleveland Browns signed him off the Packers practice squad in October 2013 before he joined the Minnesota Vikings in September 2014.

With the Vikings, he appeared in 39 games with 17 starts from 2014-16, totaling 60 catches for 834 yards and two touchdowns while receiving mentorship from veteran wide receiver Greg Jennings.

"We just kind of clicked," Johnson told NFL.com after Thursday's practice. "We were kind of similar people and he would kind of just tell it, 'Man, you can be really good at this game, you got everything you need.'

"He used to always tell me, 'Don't let them run you into the ground.' I never listened to that part because I'm a grinder and I always just went ... He would always teach me little tips here and there. We just have a strong connection."

Johnson, though, couldn't put it all together in Minnesota after dealing with an injury-plagued 2015 season, and then saw his production plummet in 2016. He signed with the Carolina Panthers in 2017, but was waived with an injury designation in July after a knee procedure. He spent time with the New York Jets last summer before joining the Apollos.

With the AAF, Johnson has found his stride and became a large reason why the Apollos are off to a league-best 5-1 record.

As to why Johnson couldn't stick with an NFL team, his current head coach is left wondering what was missed.

"I don't have answers for those things," Spurrier said. "I don't have the answers at all. Sometimes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and we all know that."

Nevertheless, Spurrier certainly doesn't mind having Johnson as a focal point in the passing game and the head coach has reaped the reward while watching his wide receiver flourish.

Johnson, 30, has also re-energized his career while gaining plenty of live-action film, which includes a head-turning Week 2 performance of seven catches for 192 yards and a touchdown, to prove he can produce when 100 percent healthy.

"I always knew I could play, play at a high level," Johnson said. "I mean, unfortunately I've had a few injuries and things throughout my career in the NFL that's kind of pushed me back.

"I'm just here trying to have fun, be happy and go out there not really play to kind of show anybody or impress anybody. I really just want to prove it to myself that I can go out here and still be able to play and do it because I love it and do it for my teammates. These guys really come out here and support me. They're guys who really love football, coaches who really love football and we do it because we love it and not so much what we can get from it."

Of course, it takes two to tango, as the saying goes. And a wide receiver can sometimes be only as good in the statistical categories as his quarterback.

Johnson doesn't have to worry about that in Orlando, where he catches passes from signal-caller Garrett Gilbert, who leads the AAF with 1,625 yards and ranks second with 10 touchdown passes.

The two clearly have chemistry, which has developed since their time together with the Panthers in 2017.

"Having known him a little bit in the past up there in Carolina, we sort of started to build that rapport, build that trust," Gilbert told NFL.com. "But it all comes down to his ability to get open and find space, and, again, making my job easy."

Johnson agreed emphatically.

"We had a little bit familiarity with one another, so it's always good when you come out here and see somebody you know, see somebody you've seen throw and run routes," he said. "It's always good."

In the meantime, the Apollos are armed with the best passer-receiver combination and both players have an opportunity to catch an NFL team's attention with a month remaining in the AAF's regular season.

Johnson, though, prefers to focus on the present -- especially with the Apollos a favorite to make the postseason and contend for a league championship -- and place his future in a higher power's hands.

"I just want to be available for my team," he said. "If I got to go out there and catch 10 balls and score a touchdown, I'm going to do that. If I got to go out there and not catch a ball and take double coverage to open it up for other guys and we win football games, I'll do that.

"Do whatever I can to help our team win and the rest will take care of itself. It's really not my plan; it's God's plan. If he has the next chapter in my book to be back in the NFL, then so be it."

JOHNNY FOOTBALL


Quarterback Johnny Manziel once again commanded headlines last week on the news of his signing with the AAF and subsequent assignment to the Memphis Express.

Despite washing out in the NFL and recent release in the Canadian Football League, Manziel remains a polarizing figure in professional football and now becomes arguably one of the AAF's high-profile players.

And that's more than fine for Orlando's head coach.

"I'm fine with whoever they want to bring in," Spurrier told NFL.com. "If they want to bring in Colin Kaepernick, I'm certainly fine with that, too. If Johnny checks out and has done everything right, then certainly he deserves an opportunity to play like everybody else."

The Apollos defeated the Express in Week 3, but could very well see Manziel on the field when Memphis hosts Spurrier's team at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium on March 30.

EMBRACING DEVELOPMENT


Apollos starting left tackle Aaron Evans admits spending time with the Philadelphia Eagles last summer as an undrafted free agent out of Central Florida proved an eye-opening experience.

The 6-foot-4, 310-pound Evans, a mainstay at left tackle in college, entered training camp highly confident in himself, but the Eagles released him as part of their moves to establish the initial 53-man roster. The episode taught him a valuable lesson.

"I think it prepared me mentally for this business, this profession and this lifestyle," Evans told NFL.com after Wednesday's practice. "It really helped me to cut my teeth and to see what was I was lacking as a player, especially after I got cut. That period after the season allowed me to refine myself, make myself a better player and man."

Evans adds that if he could go back in time and do it all over again with the Eagles, he would be more patient and not so self-assured in his abilities.

"To a degree, you need that confidence, but it can come off -- one of the things I got criticized for was for being arrogant and I've never been called that in my life, so that really struck a nerve with me," he said. "I think one of the issues is I was so confident and it was coming across that I was talking back at times.

"I wasn't meaning to be arrogant, but it was coming off that way. I had to realize I need to be more coachable. I've grown a lot in the last six months. Last year was the longest year in my life in a good way. I've had so much growth, so much development, and so it's exciting."

Enter the AAF, a league that provides so many NFL-caliber players a place to develop as players.

The opportunity isn't lost on Evans, who has fully embraced his time with the Apollos to refine his craft as an offensive lineman. Evans believes his run-blocking skills are up to par, but knows there is room for improvement on pass-blocking techniques to gain consistency.

Evans also understands he can use lesson learned from his time with the Eagles to take full advantage of an opportunity in the NFL should another team give him a call while he continues to grow in the AAF.

"It's really a huge blessing because I didn't get an opportunity to work the skill set that I worked throughout my college career," he said. "And I understand why they did it, but, like, I wanted to be able to show those skill sets and refine them like I feel like I've been able to do here. I still have a long way to go, but it's exciting to be able to work that craft at such a valuable position."

WEEKLY HONORS


Birmingham Iron receiver L'Damian Washington earned the Offensive Player of the Week for his performance in Week 6's 32-29 win over the San Diego Fleet. Washington, who has spent time in the NFL and CFL, exploded with 128 yards receiving and two touchdowns on just four catches against the Fleet.

Salt Lake Stallions defensive end Karter Schult was named the Defensive Player of the Week following a dominant defensive performance against the Memphis Express. Schult totaled five tackles, two sacks and four quarterback hits to help the Stallions to a 22-9 win. Schult previously spent time in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers and Cleveland Browns.

San Antonio Commanders wide receiver Greg Ward Jr. gathered Special Teams Player of the Week after producing an electrifying 79-yard punt return in San Antonio's 37-6 win over the Atlanta Legends. Ward, a converted college quarterback, spent time with the Philadelphia Eagles from 2016-17.

Follow Herbie Teope on Twitter @HerbieTeope

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