A version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press.
Note: When the Lions released Reggie Bush, they made it clear they wanted to revamp their running back corps. With Bush departed, there is ample room for an upgrade. Joique Bell, Theo Riddick and George Winn remain in the fold, but the Lions desperately lack a true home run threat out of the backfield. They will add another back before training camp, likely through the 2015 NFL draft.
A decorated five-star high school recruit out of Miami, FL, Duke Johnson surpassed his own hype and put together one of the finest careers in the illustrious history of Miami football.
In his first collegiate game as a true freshman, Johnson broke loose for two 50+ yard touchdown runs, giving fans a glimpse of what was to come over his three seasons in Miami green and orange.
Johnson produced arguably the most prolific freshman season in program history, rushing for a Miami freshman-record 947 yards and 10 touchdowns in 12 games (five starts). He added 27 receptions and two return TDs.
Against Virginia, Johnson displayed his entire arsenal of skills, rushing for 150 yards on just 16 carries and tossing an eight-yard TD pass.
A few minutes later, Johnson returned a kickoff 95 yards for a score.
Johnson built on his freshman successes in his sophomore campaign, setting himself up to potentially break multiple school records in his final season.
In 2014, Johnson smashed the school record for career all-purpose yards. In the regular season finale, he became Miami’s all-time leading rusher, a major feat considering the throng of talented runners who have come through the program.
At 5-9 and 207 pounds, Johnson is small in stature but exudes a fearless running style. He was an excellent schematic fit for Miami’s outside zone run game, where he could run laterally towards the edge before finding a seam and using his elite burst and electrifying agility to slash upfield. Johnson also offers valuable versatility with his receiving abilities and is a dangerous kick returner.
Let’s examine Johnson’s tape to see what made him a special player at Miami, and if his collegiate success can translate to the NFL.
Johnson rushed for 1,652 yards and 10 TDs in 2014. He added 38 receptions for 421 yards and three scores. Johnson finished his career with 3,519 rushing yards, surging to the top of the Miami rushing record books, ahead of all-time greats Ottis Anderson, Edgerrin James and Clinton Portis.
Vision and Agility
Johnson has above average vision and showcases a good feel for when and where creases will appear.
This is one of my favorite runs from Johnson. Watch him follow the pulling backside guard to the edge, varying his stride lengths and staying clean, before making two quick jump cuts and shooting into the open field.
On this outside zone run against Virginia Tech, Johnson identifies the running lane before it opens and sticks his right foot in the ground. He conforms his body to avoid a leaping defender and blasts into the secondary.
On this run, Johnson sees the defensive end shedding the block, and the linebackers over-pursuing to the play-side. He chops his feet and smoothly cuts back to his right into the open space.
Johnson consistently makes these violent cuts with ease and without hesitation. His ability to start and stop instantly is special. Combine his shiftiness with his vision to find the open lane and you have a dangerous weapon.
Patience and acceleration
If you watch Johnson play, you’ll immediately notice how smooth and patient a runner he is. That’s exactly what I observed when I attended an October game against Georgia Tech in 2013.
On this delayed shotgun run, Johnson follows his tight end around the edge and lets the blocks develop. He stays on his tight ends’ outside shoulder, then subtly cuts inside and accelerates up the sideline.
Look how quickly he jets to another gear after that vertical cut inside of the tight end. Johnson doesn’t lose any speed as he cuts and displays his elite burst and acceleration.
I watched Johnson rush for 184 yards, catch a 27-yard pass and return four kicks for 114 yards that day. It was clear he could make an impact at the next level and would be high on NFL scouts’ radars.
Johnson is undersized physically but he is unafraid to take on defenders and even lower his shoulder.
Watch him make a devastating cut inside and bounce off the first defender. He takes a good shot from the second defender but continues to fight and, thanks to some help from his lineman, nearly picks up the first down.
With the Canes leading late in the fourth quarter in the same Georgia Tech game, Johnson reeled off perhaps his most impressive run of the contest.
After fumbling earlier, he protects the ball with both hands as he runs laterally. He identifies a crease and makes a violent cut, accelerating past the first level of the defense. As he encounters a defender, he lowers his pad level and pummels the would-be tackler. He keeps his legs churning and rips through a second tackle attempt on his way to a 16-yard gain.
If you’re looking to nitpick, Johnson can be tripped up too easily at times.
Johnson is a natural receiver and will be able to jump right into the league as a pass catching threat out of the backfield. He totaled 69 receptions for 719 yards for his career and his 10.4 yards per catch average showcases his ability to make plays with the ball in his hands.
With the clock running out before the half, Johnson runs a quick-hitting out-and-up, torches the linebacker and shakes the safety for a touchdown.
Here, Johnson runs a wheel route and comes wide open down the sideline. He tracts the ball in the air, adjusts to the throw and makes the catch with two defenders bearing down on him.
Johnson’s greatest weakness may be his pass protection. He recognizes blitzes and gives effort, but he struggles with his cut blocking technique and often chooses to dive at the defender’s legs instead of staying on his feet, squaring up and using his hands. Johnson must refine his protection techniques in practice in order to be trusted as a third-down back.
As a freshman, Johnson returned two kickoffs for touchdowns in 27 attempts and averaged over 33 yards per return. He added 396 yards on 14 returns as a sophomore in 2013.
Johnson nearly scored on the opening kickoff in week three of the 2013 season, showing off his elite change of direction skills as he weaves his way to daylight for a 95-yard return.
Johnson easily eclipsed Santana Moss’ school record for all-purpose yardage (rushing, receiving and returning), breaking Moss’ record by over 1,100 yards.
NFL Network draft analyst Bucky Brooks compared Johnson to Buffalo’s LeSean McCoy.
The league’s leading rusher in 2013, McCoy might have the best feet of any back in the league and loves to shake defenders in the open field. Johnson has great foot quickness but is more of a one-cut runner who sticks his foot in the ground and goes. Like McCoy, Johnson is a dangerous cutback runner because of his vision and lateral agility.
At the NFL Combine, Johnson mentioned that he and McCoy share a handful of traits: “His quickness, his burst, his ability to move in the open field, receiving out of the backfield,” Johnson said of McCoy.
Others have cited New Orleans’ C.J. Spiller and Kansas City’s Jamaal Charles as apt comparisons to Johnson. Both Spiller and Charles are burners who have breakaway speed, which perhaps Johnson lacks. Yet like Johnson, both can help their teams in a variety of ways.
Ball security is a minor issue that Johnson must improve if he wants to be trusted late in games at the NFL level. He fumbled six times over his final two seasons.
However, the greatest concern that may drop Johnson’s stock is his durability questions. He fractured his ankle and missed the final five games of his sophomore season. He did start all 13 games last year, though he dealt with nagging injuries throughout the season. He twisted his ankle and fumbled on what was the final carry of his career in the Independence Bowl game loss to South Carolina.
Johnson’s small physique and injury history suggests he is more likely to be a 10-12 carry guy rather than a 20-carry workhorse back. His value in the passing game and as a kick returner enhances his draft stock. However, this is a talented running back class, which could bump Johnson anywhere from round two to the fourth round.
Johnson will be a valuable player in this league so long as he isn’t overworked and can stay healthy. His injuries in college suggest his body could break down if he is required to carry the load on offense.
Johnson would be a fine complement to the physical style of Joique Bell and he’d bring big-time playmaking to a Lions backfield in desperate need of a boost.
Credit to Draft Breakdown for the game film. All Illustrations and GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.