RaJae’ Johnson-Sanders' work to get on the field at Troy began with his work off the field.

“Rajae’ has really worked his butt off,” said Troy offensive coordinator Joe Craddock. “I’ve seen him overweight at times. I’m very proud of him coming into training camp. We really challenged him to slim down, and he’s done that. He looks better than he ever has.”

Craddock and Johnson-Sanders' relationship extends back before either was at Troy. Johnson played at UAB from 2019 to 2021. He struggled to get on the field his first two seasons, partly because he was out of shape at times, but made a big contribution with 23 catches for 394 yards with a touchdown last season. Craddock was the tight end coach for the Blazers in 2020 and 2021.

Johnson-Sanders entered the transfer portal before the Blazers played in the Independence Bowl. Craddock left to take over as the offensive coordinator at Troy following UAB’s victory over BYU in Shreveport. At the time, Johnson-Sanders was committed to Georgia Southern but changed his mind when Craddock reached out.

“When he first came to UAB, I was in the tight end room,” Johnson-Sanders said. “The relationship with Coach Craddock, I already knew what I was getting, so it was a no-brainer.”

On Saturday, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound Johnson-Sanders played his first game in a Troy uniform. It didn’t begin the way he envisioned when he came to Troy. For much of 28-10 loss at Ole Miss, Johnson-Sanders was on the sideline.

“He didn’t get a lot of reps early on,” Craddock said. “He very easily could have been a nuisance on the sideline or whatever. I’m just very proud of how he handled himself and his character.”

In the past, that hasn’t always been the case for Johnson-Sanders. This time, though, he showed his maturity.

“Being a senior in the room, if my energy is down, if I’m showing bad emotions, it’s going to bring the younger guys down,” Johnson-Sanders said. “I just tried to encourage them and uplift them. They were encouraging me, too, because they know I wanted to be on the field and help them.”

His first catch, a 7-yard gain, came late in the third quarter. His next one came on 4th-and-goal from the 3-yard line when he ran a slant, shielded the defender and caught the pass just past the goal line.

“I wasn’t initially the read, but the ball came to me,” Johnson-Sanders said. “I just stayed ready. I’ve been in big situations, I was prepared for the moment.”

Johnson-Sanders’ final reception came on the ensuing possession when he gathered in a 22-yard strike. Overall, he had three catches for 32 yards.

“When he finally got a shot, he went in and made the most of his opportunity,” Craddock said. “I told him after the game that I was very proud of him for that. When his number was called, he was ready and made some big plays for us.”

Johnson-Sanders hopes more of those chances come each week.

To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email steve.irvine@1819news.com.

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