When Damaris Johnson didn't hear his name called after seven rounds of April's NFL Draft, he certainly didn't think he'd end up starting his first career NFL game. But after Jeremy Maclin was scratched from Thursday night's preseason game with a pre-game hamstring injury, Johnson got the call to start as the Eagles went with three wide receivers on the opening play. In fact, Johnson caught his first NFL pass on that very first play – but that's not the play he'll be remembered for on this night.
After a dormant first half for the Eagles offense, Johnson teamed with Nick Foles to spark the team in the form of a 70-yard touchdown. Johnson ran a fake-corner-post route and sold it so well that he juked the Steelers cornerback to the ground, leaving Johnson wide open behind the defense. Meanwhile, Foles had worked his way outside the pocket, surveyed the field, no doubt seeing Johnson alone. Foles then unfurled a long pass on the run, connecting with Johnson, who ran with ease into the end zone, pulling the Eagles within six points at 13-7.
"Coach gave me an opportunity on the route. I mean, I knew I was going to have one-on-one coverage, so I just tried to take advantage and make a play," Johnson said after the Eagles' 24-23 victory to open the preseason. "Once I got in the end zone and after I got to the sidelines, I kind of sat down and had to meditate and close my eyes for a little bit. 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, that was the most important thing."
On the night, Johnson finished with four catches for 85 yards. But his impact wasn't just made on offense. Coming into the game, Johnson had already been named the first-team punt returner, and he did not disappoint in the role. The NCAA's all-time leader in kickoff return yardage, Johnson took a second-quarter punt return 55 yards, making several defenders miss in the process. Alas, the dynamic return was called back for an illegal block, but Johnson's elusiveness with the ball in his hands was evident.
In fact, it was a banner night for the return game. In 2011, the Eagles finished 28th in punt returns and 31st kickoff returns. Only the Indianapolis Colts had a lower combined ranking. So there was only room for improvement coming in for the Eagles' return game this season, but after an admittedly small one-night sample size, the Eagles' return game in 2012 could be downright dynamic. Beyond Johnson's long called-back punt return, fellow rookie Brandon Boykin exploded for a 46-yard kickoff return on his first opportunity. The Eagles' longest kickoff return in 2011 was 33 yards.
"That's kind of what we were talking about before the game, that we had to come out and make an impression, a good impression as rookies starting off the year as starters on kick and punt return," said Boykin. "I'm proud of (Johnson). I think he's proud of me and we'll continue to kind of critique each other and move forward and hopefully we'll be good."
After one night, the analysis of the return game from the head coach was less critique, more praise.
"I'll tell you what, the young guys looked good," said Andy Reid. "Both of them did. I thought there were some good things there. They looked fast, quick. There was no hesitation. They were hitting it. That's important. I thought that was a positive."
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