STARKVILLE, Miss. | It's been three years since Malcolm Johnson played a football game in Tuscaloosa. His last game here came in the black-and-blue uniform of the Northridge Jaguars.
Tonight, he returns in maroon as a Mississippi State Bulldog.
The Tuscaloosa native is breaking his way back into the offense after missing the first five games with a torn right pectoral muscle sustained in July.
"This will be my third game coming back, so I'm still getting into the game process and getting back in game mode," Johnson said. "It's going well.
"Our conditioning staff spent a good bit of time with me, so they didn't let me slack off when I was off. Conditioning wasn't really a problem, but you can't practice and simulate the game. So I'm still getting into game mode."
Johnson wasted little time showing what he brings to coach Dan Mullen's offense. In his first game back two weeks ago, Johnson sealed the win against Tennessee with a highlight-reel, one-handed touchdown grab in the back of the end zone.
The score put the Bulldogs two scores ahead and announced his rearrival.
On fourth-and-goal with less than a minute remaining, Tyler Russell sailed a pass over the middle that appeared to be heading yards out of bounds.
Instead, Johnson stabbed the ball with his left hand, pinned it against his helmet and got a foot in bounds before falling to the turf with a touchdown.
The catch may have sent the fans into a frenzy, but to Johnson it's old news.
"I heard a lot about it, but at the same time that was two weeks ago, so we've moved on," Johnson said. "You can't live in the past. You've got to look forward. I'm looking forward and taking it game by game."
Tonight's clash between 7-0 teams goes a long way towards determining the Southeastern Conference West Division title. Johnson knows the Bulldogs have a tough chore ahead of them.
"It's going to take a lot of discipline," Johnson said. "The margin of error is very slim, so basically we've got to be on task every play and play every play. We have to trust each other.
"It's not one specific thing. Their whole defense is so sound. Alabama does a good job, coaching wise, of discipline and teaching what they do so well. They're so fundamentally sound. They just wait for the offense to make mistakes. That's why I say the margin for error is so small. We just have to play our game and just calm down and do what we do and let things play out."
As a redshirt freshman in 2011, Johnson led the Mississippi State tight ends with 11 receptions for 206 yards and three touchdowns. He was named to the All-SEC freshman team.
Tight ends coach Scott Sallach said Johnson is close to being back to that level.
"He's come along well," Sallach said. "To miss as much time as he did, every day is an opportunity to get back to where he was. He's a very motivated, hard-working young man. I think he's doing fine."
Johnson has friends at Alabama, including Vinnie Sunseri and Ed Stinson, but don't expect any friendly chit-chat before the game.
"This is business," Johnson said. "We've got 358 other days to be friends. This week is all business."
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