Some players develop a seamless chemistry from the first time they meet. That was not the case for Ben Johnson and Peyton Bender.
In fact, the first time the senior tight end laid eyes on his new quarterback, he never expected to catch a pass from him — at least on a football field.
“Peyton?” Johnson said, starting to laugh. “My first time meeting Peyton I thought he was a baseball player.”
As the story goes, Johnson walked up to a building on campus and saw Bender and his brother outside.
Locked out of the building, both Bender and Johnson tried to get in with their codes and then walked down to another door in an unsuccessful attempt to get inside.
At that point, Bender took action, pulling out his cellphone to make a call. As Johnson recalled, the two had a brief back and forth leading to the realization that the person standing next to him might be an important one to remember.
“Are you calling your academic advisor or something?” Johnson asked.
“Yeah, I’m calling Shanda,” Bender said, referencing Shanda Hayden, KU football’s academic and career counselor.
“Oh, shoot. Are you a football player?” Johnson asked.
“Yeah,” Bender said. “I’m the new quarterback.”
Since then, the two have worked on their chemistry and the results have shown on the field.
In the Jayhawks’ 38-16 win over Southeast Missouri State on Saturday, Johnson caught three passes for 90 yards and a touchdown, making it by far his best collegiate game since joining the program.
But as was noted after the game — by both Johnson and KU coach David Beaty — it could’ve been even better.
“If he’d have run the route on the first play,” Beaty said, “he might have scored another touchdown.”
The first play
So let’s take a look at what David Beaty was talking about.
On its first offensive play from scrimmage, KU split four receivers out wide with Ben Johnson attached at the top of the line. The plan was for Johnson to start outside and get behind the linebacker. Then he would open up over the middle of the field with the hope being that the safeties would be occupied with the outside receivers.
“Oh, they were gone. They were gone,” said Johnson, watching the play unfold on a computer screen. “It would have been a touchdown. No question. Yep.”
Simple enough. Only it wasn’t.
With the linebacker so far up on the line of scrimmage, Johnson thought he could push him outside and then slip by him down the middle of the field. In theory it wasn’t a terrible idea, but Johnson admitted he should’ve just “jabbed him inside and then broke out.”
Looking at the GIF, you can almost see the moment Bender made up his mind to abandon that route and throw short to Jeremiah Booker. It’s right after he realizes Johnson isn’t going to be in the right spot, having gone to the inside of the linebacker rather than the outside.
It's also worth noting, the SEMO defensive back reacted pretty quickly to Bender in his attempt to get into the passing lane. If he had been just a step or two quicker, he might’ve even had a chance to intercept the pass, and all when the play probably should've ended up as a touchdown in the first place.
A second chance
Even though it only gained a few yards on the first attempt, the play itself actually proved quite effective. So it shouldn’t have been any surprise when the Jayhawks went back to it in the second half.
This time Johnson broke the right way and got behind the linebacker. Once again, the safety was occupied by the streaking receiver, and Johnson was able to slip down the middle of the field.
The straight-on view is even more telling.
After getting behind the linebacker, Johnson had plenty of space to make the catch and sprint down the field untouched. And the result was not only a 57-yard touchdown, but Johnson’s first ever 50-yard catch and 90-yard receiving game.
"It felt good, but at the same time I left a lot of play on the table," Johnson said. "I'm hungry. I want to go get it."