Duke Johnson was a five star recruit, ranked the #1 RB in his class. His senior year of high school, he led Miami Norland to an undefeated state championship. At Miami, he saw quite a bit of action as a freshman. He had a very successful career, becoming the school’s all-time leading rusher. He left school early to enter the 2015 Draft as a projected second day pick.
Johnson was definitely impactful during his college career, and it started when he was a freshman. He ran for almost 1,000 yards on the ground and also made a difference on special teams, where he returned 2 kicks for TDs. Due to his stellar play, he was named the ACC Rookie of the Year and Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2012. He played very well through the first eight games on his sophomore season, rushing for 920 yards and 6 TDs in those games. However, unfortunately, he broke his ankle against Florida State in that eighth game, ending his season. He came back from that injury for his junior year, and played very well. In his final regular season game, he surpassed NFL and ‘Cane great Ottis Anderson for the most rushing yards in Miami history, putting himself on top of an impressive list of runners. He finished his career with 3,519 rushing yards and 26 TDs on 526 carries, a 6.7 career rushing average.
In order to watch Johnson, I went to Draft Breakdown, which has eleven of his college games.
|DOB||September 23, 1993||Bench (225 lb)||18 reps|
|Weight||207 lbs||Broad Jump||121.0″|
|Arms||30 3/8″||20 Yard Shuttle||4.16 sec|
|Hands||9 1/4″||3 Cone Drill||6.88 sec|
|40 Yard Dash||4.54 sec||60 Yard Shuttle||N/A|
|University of Miami (2012-2014)|
|2014||242 att, 1652 yards, 6.8 ypc, 10 TDs||38 rec, 421 yards, 11.1 ypc, 3 TDs|
|2013||145 att, 920 yards, 6.3 ypc, 6 TDs||4 rec, 77 yards, 19.3 ypc, 0 TDs|
|2012||139 att, 947 yards, 6.8 ypc, 10 TDs||27 rec, 221 yards, 8.2 ypc, 1 TD|
- Size is a concern. He has a lean frame, and that will limit his usefulness in short yardage situations.
- However, he does an excellent job keeping a low pad level and falling forward. There will be scenarios where he will get overpowered by bigger, stronger defenders, but I’m not partiularly concerned with his ability to run between the tackles.
- Doesn’t have top end speed, but is fast enough.
- Very elusive, great jump cut.
- Vision is questionable. Does a good job once he gets to the second level but gets caught running East-West instead of North-South.
- Has special burst. Explodes out of cuts and through the line of scrimmage
- Can bounce runs outside and get around the edge. I’m not sure if that will carry over to the NFL level, however.
- Solid in the passing game. Ran every route a RB runs. Occasional drop problems.
- Good after the catch.
- Goes down too easily to leg tackles.
- Could contribute immediately as a returner
- Solid and willing blocker. Needs refinement, but does a good job of recognizing blitzers and moving to the other side of the QB.
- Ball security is a minor concern. Tends to fumble when fighting for extra yards.
Johnson probably will not be drafted to be a feature back, but rather to compliment an incumbent starter. That’s not to say he will never be a starter in the league, but he won’t be one right away. However, a way he can contribute immediately is as a returner. He’s got a very good instinct for returning and is certainly athletic enough for it. While he didn’t return any kicks his junior year because he was Miami’s feature back, he did a very good job of it in his first two years of college.
Fitting through small creases
Something I really like about Johnson is he has the size and flexibility to fit through tight spaces and maximize the yardage he can get. In the NFL, you have to fit through a lot tighter holes to be successful as a runner than many RBs see at the college level. In the above plays we see Johnson find himself as much yardage as he can get running between the tackles. This, despite his size disadvantage, will make him successful at the NFL level.
Johnson has very good vision at the second level, which is another trait that allows him to maximize the distance he gets on carries. If you look at the play against Nebraska in the second gif, even though it doesn’t allow him to break a big gain, cutting and jumping over the fallen offensive lineman is the best choice for Johnson to go, and he recognizes that. Lesser backs would let the safety hit them nearly head on and take them down. Another play I really like that shows his vision is the long TD run against Cincinnati. You would expect most RBs to, once they start turning outside, to continue on that direction to the outside edge. However, Johnson sees the crease and makes a great cut up the field, splitting the defense on his way to the endzone.
The one thing that concerns me about Johnson’s vision and decision making, and it’s something you can see throughout the plays I’m highlighting in this article, is that he has a tendency to bounce the ball to the outside edge a bit too often. In college, he’s athletic enough to get around the edge and get a respectable gain most of the time. However, there are also plays where he ends up losing yardage and it would have been better to run straight at the LoS in order to get at least a short gain. If he keeps this up in the NFL, it’s going to be an even bigger problem for him because defenders are a lot better at containing the outside runs.
Evading defenders in the backfield
The concept of making the first guy miss is very important for a RB because it helps mitigate the effect of backfield penetration by the defense. Blocking breakdowns happen, and if there’s a player in the backfield immediately you do not want your RB taken down for a 2 or 3 yard loss when that happens. Johnson faced that a fair amount in his college career, and consistently did a good job of making the first potential tackler miss him. Even though none of the runs above are huge gains, they are important ones because it shows that he can consistently get two or three more yards than his offensive line gives him.