BOGACZYK: Run?, Block? Johnson Back in Familiar Territory
The Word on the Herd-August 9, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Devon Johnson didn’t ask to play running back for Marshall.
But now that the 6-foot-1, 243-pounder is at the top of the depth chart in the backfield for the Herd, well, he’s going to be tough to dislodge.
The junior from Richlands, Va., is one of the strongest players on a team that is forecast for a Conference USA title and perhaps a College Football Playoff access bowl. But it’s not just his toughness and grit that matters.
See, the guy played running back for a long time before he came to Marshall, where he started out as a linebacker before moving to tight end and H-back.
Or, you could put it this way … Johnson not only was the Virginia High School Coaches Association Group AA Offensive Player of the Year in 2011. He got that honor by rushing for 1,376 yards and 23 touchdowns.
His favorite football player? How about Pro Football Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, the No. 3 career rusher in NFL history, whose 15,269 yards took him from Detroit to Canton, Ohio.
“Yeah, I did miss it,” Johnson said about his absence from running back after the Herd’s physical workout Saturday. “I played running back since I was little. Gosh, I missed running back so much, playing there in high school and before that. I was there growing up.
“My first year of football, I was probably 6 or 7, and I was young and they had me on the ‘A’ team, a little chunky thing. I was a lineman. The next year, I started growing, starting slimming and it was like, let’s try him at fullback.
“The first game, they handed off to me and I took it 60 yards to the house. I think it was against Mountain View. We were the Big Creek Owls. The next practice, our coach said, ‘Devon … running back.’”
He’s carried the ball for the Herd in goal-line packages, but never like he expects might occur once August camp morphs into the 2014 regular season. He isn’t worried about how many touches he gets, except in one fashion.
“Protecting 12 (quarterback Rakeem Cato) is much, much more important to me,” Johnson said. “I need to block and make contact and keep people off him. I’m a big back and I think Cato is very comfortable with me back there and the main things I focus on is protecting.
“Cato one of the greatest Marshall quarterbacks, right there with Chad Pennington, with Byron Leftwich. We can’t let anything happen to him, and I’ve got to protect him. He’s the soul of our offense.”
That’s why Coach Doc Holliday moved from Johnson from tight end just before August camp began.
“At that position, one of the critical things is you've got to be able to protect Cato,” Holliday said on the first day of camp. “You've got to be able to pick up the blitzes and stick your nose up in the 'B' gap and pick up a blitzing linebacker. There's more that goes into playing that position than just with the ball in your hands.”
Johnson said he was “stunned” when told he’d be moving from tight end, but said his first thought was about being a good teammate. When the Herd returned for August camp last Sunday after a week off, eight ends coach Todd Hartley called Johnson into the office.
“Coach Hartley called me in, sat me down,” Johnson said. “We went out to run and he said he needed to see me right after the run. I came up to the office and he said, ‘Listen, Coach Holliday trusts you and needs somebody at running back he can trust and everything like that. And he feels like you’d be a big help to our running game and offense.
“And I was like, ‘Whatever helps the team, I’m here to do it. I’m a team player … Deep snapper? I may not get the ball back there the first few times, but I’ll go downfield and hit somebody.”
It’s not like Johnson is a neophyte on the other side of the ball, a situation that could pay dividends in protecting Cato, too. As a high school linebacker, he was also an All-State first team selection with 85 solo tackles as a Richlands senior.
“I understand it and I kind of have a feel for what linebackers are going to do,” Johnson said of picking up blitzers and rushers. “I think that’s an advantage. They’ll try to avoid me or come straight up and keep me, or snag me off them.
“But that’s great, having played that position before. I know how to handle them when they come at me, and I’m not giving away any size to them.”
Veteran Herd cornerback Darryl Roberts said he’s hasn’t tried to tackle Johnson, but said when the guy nicknamed “Rockhead” gets “going downhill, he’s probably going to be hard to get on the ground.”
What opponents will quickly learn is that Johnson loves contact.
“I don’t mind the move at all,” he said, “I always played running back growing up and I’ve always had a feel for it. Right now I’m a little rusty, but when I get my legs back – and I’m about to get my legs back up and under me – I’ll be fine.
“I’ve been out a couple years, been working on blocking and route-running and now I’ve just got to get back to where I’m finding the holes, seeing the holes, reading the keys, lining up right. I’m coming along real well with my teammates helping me a lot and Coach (Chris) Barclay, a great running backs coach, he helps me learn quickly.”
Johnson doesn’t expect to be a 1,100-yard rusher, as his predecessor – Essray Taliaferro – was last season. If it happens, it happens, although he said earlier in the week, “They don’t know what to expect. They’re going to get the speed and they’re going to get the power. They don’t even know what’s going to hit them.”
His priority is taking on whatever, whenever.
“The adjustment is communication,” Johnson said. “I’ve got to watch the linemen; they’re going to call the play and I’ve got to watch which way they’re going to slide because (center) Chris Jasperse, he’s in control of the line.
“If he doesn’t like something, he can audible it with maybe even doing something silly that’s a signal. I’ve got to pick up that communication, get the right read so I won’t mess up and hurt No. 12.
“I’m his bodyguard.”
And that’s just what the Doc ordered.