Already proven, Miami's Duke Johnson set to take next step in 2013
If Duke Johnson has his sights set on achieving any individual goals this season, chances are he won't be talking about them any time soon. For as much as Miami's sophomore running back accomplished during his freshman year in Coral Gables, Fla., the only milestones he has heading into 2013 are of the team variety. "I'm just trying to help the team win in any way possible," Johnson said earlier this week.
Miami enters the fall looking to build off last year's 7-5 campaign, a season in which its offense averaged more than 440 yards per game. If it succeeds, Johnson will likely play a major role. Whether he's willing to admit it or not, he's on the verge of becoming one of the nation's top running backs and his development is crucial to the Hurricanes' success.
Last year, Johnson made his debut. This year, he has a chance to emerge as one of the country's most intriguing dark horse Heisman contenders.
For Johnson, the development process began early this offseason, when he added weight to his 5-foot-9 frame to prepare for the increased workload he's expected to handle. After watching power back Mike James, who led Miami with 147 carries last season, graduate, Johnson is poised to become the main focus of Miami's rushing attack. He admitted to suffering a number of "dink" injuries throughout last fall, and he hopes the extra weight -- Johnson played at 185 pounds last season but hopes to get up to 195 by this fall -- will help him withstand the pounding that comes with being a more conventional every-down back.
Still, don't expect Johnson's role to change too dramatically. Miami's new offensive coordinator James Coley is expected to make only minor adjustments to the scheme Johnson flourished in last season. Johnson's rushing attempts may increase, but he'll still contribute as a receiver and return man. The versatility that made him one of last year's most exciting young playmakers isn't going away.
"Nothing has really been changed," Johnson said. "[Coley] is coming in and adapting to us as we adapt to him. He knows what I'm capable of and what he expects of me."
In his breakout 2012 campaign, Johnson carried 139 times for 947 yards, a record total for a freshman at a school with a recent lineage of backs that includes Clinton Portis, Frank Gore, Willis McGahee, Edgerrin James and Lamar Miller. Johnson finished with 2,060 all-purpose yards and 10 rushing touchdowns, the final three of which came in a 52-45 win over Duke in Miami's regular-season finale. This season, the Hurricanes' full complement of offensive linemen returns intact, and five other offensive starters come back. Johnson will be one of the focal points of Miami's offense, but particularly given the presence of senior quarterback Stephen Morris, he'll be far from the only weapon in the 'Canes' arsenal.
Johnson should also benefit from his drive, a trait that was evident dating back to his days at Florida powerhouse Miami Norland High. After losing in the FHSA state championship game in 2010 -- a game Johnson played at less than full health because of a toe injury -- Johnson was inspired to finish his high school career on a winning note. He and Norland coach Daryle Heidelburg spent the entire offseason emphasizing one goal, and Heidelburg described how Johnson worked to help his team achieve it: He gave up carries to get other players involved, walked teammates through game film in his spare time and generally tried to avoid turning the spotlight on himself. In turn, Norland went 15-0 and walloped Wakulla (Fla.) High 38-0 in the state title game.
"After that [2010 championship loss], we focused on knowing when the state championship game was and knowing what it took for us to get there, and we went back the next year and won," Heidelburg said. "He has a willingness to compete. He never wants to be outdone. He always wants to finish first and he leaves a lasting impression."
Another source of motivation for Johnson in 2013 stems from the fact that Miami, despite finishing tied atop the ACC Coastal with a 5-3 league record last year, was unable to compete in the ACC championship game or a bowl after self-imposing a postseason ban during the NCAA's investigation into the impermissible benefits provided by rogue booster Nevin Shapiro. This year, having regained postseason eligibility, division and conference championship contention are not out of the question.
"With the team we have, it's not a matter of what we can do, but if we're going to do it," Johnson said. "We have unbelievable talent, unbelievable leadership. The only thing is if we're going to be able to come together on game day."
When asked to find a modern comparison for his role at Miami, Johnson brought up Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas, the dynamic junior who helped lead the Ducks to back-to-back BCS bowl victories. Both Johnson and Thomas impact their respective teams in a variety of ways, and both are smaller than most of their running back peers. But Johnson will concede at least one difference between the two. "De'Anthony doesn't have good speed, he has ridiculous speed," Johnson said. "I have good speed."
Heidelburg offered a professional parallel for his former back. "I was thinking LeSean McCoy from Philly," Heidelburg said. "Guys that can get the ball in their hands and hurt you in so many different ways."
Despite the buzz surrounding his sophomore season, however, Johnson prefers to maintain a low profile. He's reluctant to consider himself a Heisman threat, and he named seven other players who should be tabbed as favorites before eventually relenting that, maybe, he has a chance at the trophy. "If it just happens to come my way and I just happen to get it, that would be a great accomplishment," he said.
Johnson doesn't like to tell you that he's good, even if he is. But one year after his debut, he could be primed for a show-stopping encore in 2013.
"From what I know of the kid, he definitely has a shot [at the Heisman]," Heidelburg said. "I'm sure it's one of his goals, even if he won't say it publicly."