Posted: 1:06 am Monday, October 7th, 2013
By Matt Porter
Ah, the two sides of the Duke Johnson coin.
There’s the obvious production the Hurricanes get from the star sophomore running back. Through four games, he has 572 yards on 84 carries, an average of 6.8 per carry, and four touchdowns. There’s the kickoff returns, on which he’s averaging 30.5 yards per and has a long of 95 yards. He’s averaging 190.8 all-purpose yards per game, and he’s had less than a full workload, given the three less-than-arduous games on Miami’s early-season schedule.
Then, there are the questions about his durability and his recent bout with hand slipperiness. Johnson, who is in his first season of being a feature back, went to the sidelines to be checked out for injury in each of Miami’s first four games. He has also fumbled three times in his last two games – after fumbling just once in his previous 15 games — and dropped a pass.
What’s the State of Duke after Saturday’s win over Georgia Tech? By all accounts, pretty solid.
“I know the coach has trust in me, the way he just keeps putting me back in the game in big-time situations when the team needs me,” Johnson said. “He just tells me, ‘Move on.’”
Johnson set a career-high in carries (22) and rushed for 184 yards, two yards shy of his career high. He didn’t get into the end zone – that’s apparently Dallas Crawford’s job these days – but slashed his way for long gains on several occasions and, perhaps more importantly, was able to put together stretches of four and five carries in a row when Miami needed him to gain positive yards, eat up as much clock as possible, and keep Georgia Tech off-balance.
“I thought he hit the holes hard yesterday,” UM coach Al Golden said on Sunday. “He went right where his landmarks needed to be, he was true to his landmarks. He wasn’t really dancing. That’s how he got to the second and third level. His yards after contact were phenomenal.”
Golden said he liked “the way he lowered his pads, the way he stayed on track. We always talk about just ram it in there and get positive yards, and it’s easier to call the game. When you dance, you end up losing yards, and it really puts us in some bad situations.”
Johnson, nor anyone on Miami, rushed for a negative gain on Saturday. His 27-yard kickoff return and 33-yard burst set up Miami’s first touchdown, a 40-yard catch by Phillip Dorsett. Johnson later added rushes of 27, 21 yards and a 44-yard kickoff return. He also caught a 27-yard pass from Morris.
He entered the game with concerns about his durability. Johnson was given a concussion test in the season-opening game against FAU and last week against USF. UM said he passed both. He had a brief spell on the sidelines thanks to an apparent hip/groin issue against Florida in Week 2. He left the Savannah State game in the first quarter after taking a hit up high, but he was not expected to play much that night.
He looked strong as ever against Georgia Tech, especially on a fourth-quarter drive that helped put the game out of reach.
After Georgia Tech’s Harrison Butker missed an extra point that would have tied the game, the Yellow Jackets kicked to Johnson. He took it 31 yards to the Hurricanes’ 34-yard line. Miami took over, up 24-23 with 10:38 left. They gave the ball five times in a row to Johnson, who earned two first downs and got Miami across midfield. Johnson’s hard running set up a pretty rollout pass from Stephen Morris to Stacy Coley which went for 41 yards. Crawford punched in a 3-yard touchdown to make it 31-23.
After Rayshawn Jenkins intercepted Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee, a backbreaking interception with 5:15 left in the game, Johnson got five carries in a row, breaking 16- and 19-yarders, before Crawford got loose for an 18-yard touchdown to make it 38-23.
Then there’s the other side of things. Johnson also fumbled away Miami’s second drive of the game, which Georgia Tech converted into a touchdown three plays later to go up 17-7. This came after two fumbles inside the 5-yard line against South Florida, which last week saw him briefly demoted to the second string.
“I was very disappointed,” Johnson said after his fumbles in the Georgia Tech game. “Nobody can be as disappointed as me, but they can try to match my disappointment.”
No one on Miami can match Johnson’s supernatural talent as a ballcarrier or kickoff returner. But that’s not the only reason Golden trusts him. He talks about Johnson’s blitz pickup, and ability to chip and sometimes cut defensive linemen as he releases from the backfield, and block for his teammates on the perimeter. Add that to his “bank” as Golden calls it, which already contains more than 3,000 total yards in just 17 collegiate games.
Last year, Johnson had senior Mike James to open up holes for him, and he finished with 947 yards and 10 touchdowns, the most productive freshman season by a Hurricanes running back. He added eight pounds of muscle to his 5-foot-9, 196-pound frame in the offseason, knowing he would be the go-to back this year. After five games in his new role, the results have been mixed, but mostly positive.
“I really liked the tracks that he ran yesterday,” Golden said. “Hopefully he felt it as the game went on. Because, maybe that’s the first time in his career, I don’t know, maybe that’s the first time in his career that it was ‘Duke Time’ and we were just giving him the ball. It was great to see him respond the way he responded.”