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"RU-DI! RU-DI! RU-DI!..."
On Aug. 31 that chant from the Auburn crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium was directed toward junior tailback Rudi Johnson, who until that night had never played a down of major college football. The fans had good reason to call for more from him after he'd had only a few carries because every college football cognoscente below the Mason-Dixon Line had predicted the junior college transfer would revive the Tigers' dormant running game. Auburn ranked 112th in the nation (68.0 yards per game) in 1999 and hadn't produced an All-SEC back since Stephen Davis in '95.
Johnson lived up to his billing in that season opener against Wyoming, rushing for 174 yards in the Tigers' 35-21 victory. He didn't stop there either. Against Ole Miss the following week, he broke loose for 165 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 35-27 win. Last Saturday he ran for 139 yards as Auburn, which was 5-6 a year ago, improved to 3-0 with a 34-17 victory over LSU and moved into the Top 25, at No. 20.
Johnson is the nation's sixth-leading rusher (159.3 yards per game), and his three-game total of 478 yards already far exceeds the largest output by a Tigers back all last season—330 yards by fullback Heath Evans. The expectations of run-hungry Auburn fans, who had not seen one of their tailbacks amass three straight 100-yard games since the Davis era, have yet to faze Johnson. "Luckily, I already learned how to win and the rest has come pretty easy," he says.
Johnson did a lot of winning at Butler ( Kans.) County Community College, where he rushed for 3,647 yards over two seasons and led the Grizzlies to national juco titles in 1998 and '99. Auburn assistant Noel Mazzone went to Butler to scout quarterback Daniel Cobb but came away raving about Johnson. Johnson's prolific running—not to mention calves and biceps worthy of his nickname, Popeye—sold Tigers coach Tommy Tuberville. "Rudi really comes alive in the fourth quarter," says Tuberville of Johnson's combined 187 rushing yards in the fourth quarters of Auburn's first three games. "He's what you might call a punisher."
Johnson's first victims came on the fields of Ettrick, Va. As a youngster he earned free haircuts from a barber for every touchdown he scored in the peewee league. "I didn't have to pay for a trim from age eight to 13," he says. Johnson went on to set a single-season rushing record of 1,800 yards as a senior at Thomas Dale High in nearby Chester, but poor grades forced him to detour through Butler. "That place made me grow up real fast," says Johnson.
So did fatherhood. His four-year-old daughter, Jasmine, lives with her mother, Johnson's high school girlfriend, Kiana Braxton, in Petersburg, Va. "I don't get to see my little girl as much as I'd like," says the 21-year-old Johnson. "But I'm working hard so that I'll be able to provide for my family real soon."
Despite his lofty credentials, the soft-spoken Johnson wasn't excused from the humiliating rite of passage that many first-year Tigers undergo. "Each of us had to do a skit during preseason," says Johnson. "The goal was to not get booed off the stage. I did not get booed."
Nor is he ever likely to be while he's playing at Auburn.