ORONO — At this time a year ago, three games into the University of Maine’s football season, Derrick Johnson found himself on the outside looking in.

A junior wide receiver with explosive speed, Johnson had caught three passes against Bryant, five against Pittsburgh and five more against Albany.

“Going into last year we had pretty high expectations for him,” said Kevin Bourgoin, Maine’s offensive coordinator. “I thought he was ready for a breakout year, and then he got hurt.”

It was that last reception, a screen pass late in the victory over Albany, that spelled the end of Johnson’s season. A safety came up fast for a tackle and hit Johnson’s right leg, twisting it and tearing the meniscus, a rubbery, C-shaped disc that cushions the knee.

Goodbye, football. Hello, surgery.

“It was hard at first,” Johnson said, “but I believe things happen for a reason.”

Rehabilitation was nothing new to Johnson, who missed most of his junior year in high school (Holy Trinity in Hempstead, N.Y.) with a groin strain. The cruel aspect of his torn meniscus was that, after working to get himself back after surgery, he tore it again in late spring after planting his foot to make a sharp cut.

“It was heartbreaking,” Johnson said. “Before the second surgery I was as strong as I’ve ever been, and as fast as I’ve ever been.”

Weight room work added 10 pounds to bring him up to 190. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.27 seconds, faster than anyone else on the Black Bears.

In high school track he ran 100 meters in 10.5 seconds and 200 in 22.5. He was also adept at baseball and basketball, the sport his father, Daryl, played at the University of Southern California.

Now it was back to rehab.

“I had to go and do it all over again,” Johnson said. “It was hard, but I got it done. I had a lot of support from my teammates, my coaches and my family.”

Johnson spoke after a Wednesday afternoon practice session that he attended but mostly watched, without shoulder pads, as the rest of the Black Bears (1-2) prepared for their Colonial Athletic Association opening game against Villanova (3-1) Saturday afternoon at Alfond Stadium. Rest is an important part of his recovery, so the staff at Maine is managing his workload by giving him an occasional day off.

“He’s worked incredibly hard on rehab,” said head coach Jack Cosgrove, “almost to the point where we had to slow him down. He loves playing the game and he figures more is better.”

Indeed, Johnson’s knee swelled up during training camp after he tried to do too much, forcing him to sit and watch from the sidelines.

Any doubts about surgery slowing Johnson’s speed were dispelled in the Bryant game when he downshifted to catch an underthrown pass from quarterback Marcus Wasilewski, then accelerated away from two defensive backs who seemed about to overtake him, resulting in a 75-yard touchdown.

Against Boston College he took a reverse for 13 yards. Against Albany he caught a 4-yard scoring pass from Wasilewski. Through three games Johnson is averaging 14.5 yards on 15 receptions.

“He’s a kid you can do a lot of things with,” said Bourgoin. “He’s a great weapon for us.”

The challenge ahead is to keep Johnson on the field every Saturday.

“We’d like him to play 11 games and help us win,” Cosgrove said. “So part of what you have to do is manage what you have.”

So far, that strategy is working. Johnson complements possession receiver Mo McDonald, tight end Justin Perillo and fellow wideout Damarr Aultman.

“I got a second chance to play again,” Johnson said. “I’m just making the most of it.”

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