Impressive Debut For Damaris Johnson

Philadelphia Eagles rookie Damaris JohnsonThe way Damaris Johnson tells it, there was no discussion. Someone just yelled at him to get on the field, and so, that’s what he did.

“It wasn’t really a conversation,” Johnson said with a laugh. “The crazy thing is I was on the sideline and the first group was in. They called me off the sideline, so I didn’t really know. I kind of went in the game late.”

Jeremy Maclin injured his hamstring before the game, which meant the Eagles needed someone to line up opposite DeSean Jackson with the first-team offense. Throughout training camp, Johnson has generally lined up with the twos, but Andy Reid and the coaches wanted to see what he could do.

It didn’t take long for Michael Vick to get Johnson in the mix. On the Eagles’ first offensive play, he lined up to Vick’s left and ran a short 2-yard pattern towards the sideline. Johnson made the catch, and instead of running out of bounds, the 5-8 wide receiver took a hit from Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis.

The play that really got everyone’s attention, though, came in the third quarter. Johnson lined up to the left of Nick Foles. He ran straight ahead for about 10 yards, took a step inside, which turned cornerback Curtis Brown around, and then a couple steps back outside. By the time Brown realized where Johnson was, the Steelers defensive back had lost his balance and face-planted onto the grass at Lincoln Financial Field, leaving Johnson to run free.

Foles escaped pressure and found him wide open around the Steelers’ 29-yard line. The Eagles wide receiver stumbled initially after making the catch, but then sped away from a pair of defensive backs for the 70-yard touchdown. He finished the game with four catches for 85 yards.

“I didn’t know what to think,” Johnson said. “I always give the ball to the ref. I didn’t know whether to celebrate with my teammates. I haven’t been in the end zone in awhile. It felt kind of crazy, but it was a good, crazy feeling.”

Johnson said he hasn’t been in the end zone in awhile. To be more accurate, it’s been about 20 months. His last touchdown came on Christmas Eve, 2010, while Johnson was at Tulsa. He was kicked off the team for his senior year after receiving unpaid merchandise from his girlfriend, who worked at Macy’s.

Johnson, the NCAA’s leader in all-purpose yards, went undrafted. It’s been a long road to get to this point, but his same girlfriend and son flew in yesterday to see him in action.

“Once I got in the end zone and after I got to the sideline, I kind of sat down and had to meditate, close my eyes for a little bit,” he said. “It kind of felt surreal. It felt great, but at the same time, it felt crazy, just being in an NFL game and scoring a touchdown. Also, helping our team win, so that was the most important thing.”

As for his standing with the team, Johnson, who said during training camp that he fashions his game after Carolina’s Steve Smith, is listed as the No. 1 punt returner. Officially, he had three returns for 18 yards against the Steelers. But Johnson also had an electrifying 55-yard return that was wiped out because of a penalty.

Because of his wide-ranging skill set, Johnson is a strong candidate to make the 53-man roster. And he’s gotten the attention of the starting quarterback.

“He wants to make this football team,” Vick said. “He’s very bright. He puts himself in the right positions, and he does everything the coaches ask him to do. That’s all you can ask for out of a young player.”

Follow Sheil Kapadia on Twitter and e-mail him at skapadia@phillymag.com.

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