Work in Sports
The hope of Auburn
Tailback Rudi Johnson raises expectations on the Plains
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
One week into his Division I college football career, just one week into Auburn's season, Rudi Johnson is hot. He's the talk of the school, a star of late-night sports highlight shows, the buzz around thousands of football-hungry fans in the state of Alabama.
Johnson is more than just a football player who could be great for Auburn, though. He's a football player who could take Auburn, coming off back-to-back losing seasons for the first time since Pat Dye took over for Doug Barfield in 1981, back to greatness.
"Well, I don't think we're ready yet to have a coronation after one ballgame," laughs Noel Mazzone, the offensive coordinator at Auburn. "But if he's doing this six games from now, then, yeah."
Johnson quickly has become to Auburn what Bo Jackson was, what Stephen Davis was, what James Brooks and Joe Cribbs and all those other great Tigers once were.
Johnson, simply, has become the hope for Auburn.
Yes, thanks to Johnson's impressive Division I debut last week against Wyoming, hope is riding awfully high on the Plains. Johnson gets a good dose of what he means to the team, to the school, to the town every day.
"I'm getting that plus some more," Johnson says, days away from his Southeastern Conference coming out party, Saturday at Ole Miss. "I think they all expect the same thing, coaches, fans. They all want to win."
Johnson, a 5-foot-10, 225-pound junior college transfer, has put a lot of these mighty expectations on himself, of course. He was a phenomenon at Butler County Community College in El Dorado, Kan., leading the school to back-to-back national titles while running for nearly 4,000 yards in his two years there.
His performance in last year's national championship game against Dixie College of Saint George, Utah, is practically mythic. Against the No. 1 juco team in the country, a team that was allowing about 50 rushing yards a game, Johnson ran for 375 yards on 40 carries and scored seven touchdowns in a 49-35 Butler win.
"Butler didn't beat us," Dixie receiver Ethan Ross said at the time. "That running back Rudi guy did."
Still, not long before that game, Auburn coaches didn't even know who Johnson was. Auburn had been looking for a backup quarterback to spell Ben Leard, and had zeroed in on a player from Georgia who was Butler's starter, Daniel Cobb.
Mazzone was talking to Cobb one day when Cobb asked him if the Tigers were interested in a running back. Cobb described Johnson, and Mazzone immediately thought, "We don't need a fullback." He pulled the tapes of Johnson anyway and was impressed enough to get a second look.
"Well, the first thing that convinced me about him was how poor our running game was," says Mazzone. The Tigers were last in the SEC last season and in the bottom 10 in the nation, with 68 running yards a game. "We felt we were bringing back a good quarterback, some good receivers, we got two more tight ends. The missing ingredient was to have a running back ..."
Johnson is not a particularly speedy back. He does most of his running between the tackles. But Mazzone was convinced he'd be an upgrade for the Tigers. Last week against Wyoming, he proved it.
Playing his first game at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Johnson ran for 174 yards on 27 carries and three touchdowns in Auburn's 35-21 win. Most impressive, perhaps, was a 70-yard run with 3:24 left in the game. Johnson broke at least five tackles on that run and carried one Cowboy defender almost 10 yards into the end zone.
It was the first 100-yard day for an Auburn back since Stephen Davis did it in 1994. In fact, Johnson alone ran for more yards than the Tigers had run for, as a team, in any of their 18 previous games.
Johnson has been slammed with phone calls and congratulations from family, former teammates and coaches ever since. But Johnson knows, maybe more than anyone, how short-lived this can be.
"I think I got something to prove," says Johnson, from Ettrick, Va. "A lot of people who supported me, they've also been waiting for this."
Saturday's game against Mississippi should give some indication of just how good Johnson can be. All of Auburn will be watching.
"I don't know," Mazzone says. "That's what we're all anxious to find out. Running back is like quarterback. The whole thing is performance-based. It's all about what kind of numbers the guy is putting up.
"He hasn't scratched the surface, really. He ought to do nothing but get better."
Which is just what Auburn fans want to hear.
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