Ben Johnson was an offensive quality control coach for the Detroit Lions in 2019 when tight end T.J. Hockenson was a first-round draft pick (No. 8 overall). Hockenson said the two would sit in the back of the room taking notes and learning the offense together that first season.
Johnson became Hockenson's position coach in 2020 and served in that role all the way up until this offseason, when Johnson was named Detroit's new offensive coordinator. Hockenson credits Johnson for helping him become the Pro Bowl player he is today.
There's no coach currently on staff who knows Hockenson better than Johnson does. Now that Johnson is running the offense, Hockenson said he's excited about the possibilities for his contributions within it.
"Ben has seen me do routes that most guys or coordinators wouldn't think that a tight end could do," Hockenson said after Tuesday's minicamp practice. "Splitting me out, running a comeback, splitting me out and running things that really only wide receivers do.
"He's seen me run it and he's seen me run it well. Just being able to have that in his head – we're already seeing it now (with me) being split out and doing some things and showing what we got."
It's something veteran quarterback Jared Goff likes about Johnson's approach to building this offense. He'll utilize players and matchups he thinks can put stress on a defense.
"T.J. is a unique player and somebody that we need to take advantage of his full skill set," Goff said Tuesday. "No one knows him better than Ben, so having him in that (OC) spot to make those decisions and draw things up is helpful. But he's doing a great job creatively with T.J."
Hockenson is a good route runner, and the Lions used him in a lot of different ways in the team periods he took part in Tuesday. When paired with some of the speed elements the Lions have added on the outside this offseason, it could free things up for Hockenson to operate more in the middle.
"When you have guys like (DJ Chark, Josh Reynolds and Jameson Williams) that can extend the field on the outside and make those safeties really not take it for granted and they have to go play over there and not sit in the middle of the field, it's a big thing for a tight end and a slot receiver," Hockenson said.
"Kind of opens up the field. At that point you're playing on linebackers and some nickel (corners) and that's always fun. I like that rather than the safety over the top and the nickel underneath. It'll be good."
Hockenson was a Pro Bowler in 2020 after catching 67 passes for 723 yards and six touchdowns. He was on his way to topping those marks last season before a thumb injury forced him to miss the last five games of the season. He missed the last four games of his rookie season due to an ankle injury, so he said being available for 17 games is a big goal for him in 2022. He adjusted his offseason routine to help him accomplish that.
The Lions think Hockenson can have a big season and be one of the key weapons for Goff on offense.
"When we ask him to win, can he win?" head coach Dan Campbell said of Hockenson. "Because I think sometimes, when you start thinking about (Travis) Kelce and (Darren) Waller and Kyle Pitts, for a long time, some of those guys are 'the' showcase guy.
"I think what we want is we want T.J. to just go out and win and do what he does (on) third down, criticals, when you need it, when your time's called because we've got (Amon-Ra) St. Brown, we've got (DJ) Chark, Williams will come along. We've got (Josh) Reynolds, we've got (D'Andre) Swift. So, it's, man, he's a piece of the puzzle and when his number's called, we know he's going to win, and that's a comforting feeling."