BOGACZYK: Johnson Running Through More than Daylight
The Word on the Herd-September 5, 2014
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Devon Johnson’s nickname is “Rockhead.” If the Marshall football junior has many more games like his debut at running back, that moniker might change to “Rockstar.”
Johnson takes it all in pounding-by-pounding stride, however, and as Marshall opens its 2014 home season Saturday night against the Rhode Island Rams at Edwards Stadium, the 6-fooot-1, 243-pound running back is ready for continue to play ram tough.
Collisions, you ask?
The guy who ran for 4,340 yards in his Richlands (Va.) High School career welcomes those as much as an auto body shop, and appreciates a mantra of first-year Herd running backs coach Chris Barclay.
He used that run-through style in Saturday’s opening win at Miami (Ohio), getting 151 yards on 19 carries – a ground high in a Marshall opener against a major college opponent.
“Coach (Chris) Barclay said one-on-one in the hole, you’d better win,” Johnson said earlier this week. “There will be times it’s BYOB -- bring your own block -- and all that, so when I saw (a Miami defender) in the hole, I’ve got to win this one-on-one.
“Our goal as running backs every day is to win one-on-ones, and when saw him, I just lowered my shoulder and thank God I won. And that’s how I’m going with the mindset for the rest of the year, try to win my one-one-ones.”
Johnson had a 55-yard romp in the first half, when he carried seven times for 77 yards. His biggest run, however, came on a fourth-and-2 gamble with just under nine minutes left in the game … and the RedHawks having cut the Herd lead to 28-20.
Johnson went 27 yards up the middle to score. After getting 100 yards on 10 carries through three quarters, he was 9-for-51 in the final 15 minutes, when the Herd ran clock after a significant (2-to-1) time-of-possession deficit in the first three periods.
“That felt great that Coach (Bill Legg, offensive coordinator) had the trust in me to give me the ball to run out the clock and they had all that trust on me on fourth-and-1s and fourth-and-2s, trust in me to get the first downs and keep the clock moving,” Johnson said.
On one fourth-quarter play, officials ruled he was short of the first down on fourth-and-1 at the RedHawks’ 22.
“The next time, it just shows me don’t just get 1 yard,” Johnson said. “Go for 5 and we won’t have that problem.”
After two seasons at linebacker (briefly) and tight end, Johnson moved to the backfield when camp started in August, as coach Doc Holliday said he wanted someone dependable, someone who would protect star quarterback Rakeem Cato from the obvious blitzers trying to take away the Herd air game.
From his high school numbers – he also rushed for 63 career touchdowns – it’s obvious Johnson is no neophyte at the position. After all, his favorite football player is Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders.
‘To be honest, I missed running back a lot,” Johnson said. “After I got out there and started running, it was ‘Gosh, I missed this a lot.’ Then, I got to liking tight end, too -- you know, that started to become my position. But now that I’m back there at running back, I feel I’m at home and I feel great to be back there.”
Holliday’s decision to move Johnson couldn’t have worked out better, it seems.
“I’m happy for that kid,” Holliday said at his Tuesday media session. “You guys know him, he’s special. He’s just as good of a kid as he is a player. He’s a talented guy. You all knew it, because you’ve seen it, but a lot of people think because he’s 235-240 pounds that he can’t run. He can.
“I just think what he brings to that (running backs) room, he’s going to make (Stew) Butler and Remi (Watson) better. Actually, he already has because if they don’t play extremely hard and block that A and B gap on blitzes, they’re going to sit over by me and watch, because (Johnson) does it.”
Johnson said he felt his 55-yard run in the first quarter was significant for more reasons than it took the Herd to the Miami 1 and set up the third Marshall TD.
“What meant more to me was that it showed my team and coaches that they can trust me with the ball in my hands,” Johnson said. “And if you need anything from me, you can count on me, because I’m going to go 100 percent and try my best at everything I do on the field.
“It’s different from high school, running the ball. They hit a little harder, and when I’d break it there, I’m scoring. Here, maybe that doesn’t happen (as it did when he stopped at the 1). It’s a big difference, but it feels the same when you get into the end zone.”
Johnson said “every game, every practice” is a learning experience for him. He used his debut game in the backfield in that fashion, too.
“First, they’re going to be tackling my legs a lot more, so I’m going to have to learn stuff to get them away from my legs,” he said. “More things, more movement, get down lower, keep my feet moving and keep them away from my legs.
“And I’ve got to be patient. There were a few times when I was just in a hurry and I missed a couple of holes, but that comes from just learning and being at the position after not being there for a long time. So, it’s a couple of things I can keep learning to keep growing my game at running back.”
Johnson said in the few minutes after the game that he was stunned by his 151-yard total, which is the most for a Herd running back in an opener since the I-AA Herd had Erik Thomas go for 173 in a 1996 win over Howard.
Johnson’s yardage topped the 126 yards Ron Lear gained in a 1979 opening win over Toledo, the previous high for a Herd rusher against a major college team in an opening game.
“I’m thankful and I’m glad that God gave me the ability to be able to do the things I do and getting a record, that’s special,” Johnson said. “Honestly, I thought I had about 80 to 100 yards. I was just running. I’m going out and just running, do my best for the team, the stats I didn’t pay attention to, didn’t care about. But when they told me after the game, I was kind of shocked.”
Holliday said the game tape verified what Johnson did … and few will be surprised if he does it again.
“You turn that film on … If you guys have watched that tape, a couple of the safeties probably wish they hadn’t done what they did,” the Herd coach said. “You just love watching him play. That’s just him. He’s a really physical guy.
“He brings an attitude to that position that we haven’t had in the last 3-4 years. He’s just a tremendous kid. I’m glad he’s back there. Cato feels good with him back there too, which is important.”