Whether its receiving, rushing or returning kickoffs, there aren’t many running backs in college football who pack a punch quite like Hurricanes’ freshman Duke Johnson.
He not only ranks second nationally in all-pupose yards per game (212.67), second in scoring (six touchdowns), 11th in kick return average (33.89), and 57th in rushing (82.67), there also are just two tailbacks on the nation’s top 100 list of all-purpose runners averaging more yards per touch than Johnson’s 14.50 average. They are Kent State junior Dri Archer (15.63) and Oregon sophomore De’Anthony Thomas (15.32).
One might imagine having a weapon like that at his disposal would tempt UM offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch to try to get the ball into Johnson’s hands more often than the 44 times he’s had it through three games. But quality over quantity — and having UM’s biggest threat around for the entire season — is what takes precedence for the Canes.
“It would be really tempting [to overuse Johnson] if I didn’t feel great about the other guys,” Fisch said of the 5-9, 188-pound freshman from Miami Norland, who was named Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Week on Monday for the second time this season.
“We’ve got two great backs behind him. Mike [James] is playing at a very high level. I think Mike averaged eight yards a carry [Saturday versus Bethune-Cookman]. Then Eduardo [Clements] came in and ran the ball very well.
“We can’t be the type of team that can’t ever sub. We certainly can sub and we’ve always talked about running back by committee. That hasn’t changed.”
Johnson, who had a season-high 18 touches on Saturday, was only in for about 35 of the 64 offensive plays UM ran against Bethune-Cookman, according to Fisch.
“We just can’t leave him in constantly because all of a sudden those reps aren’t as good,” Fisch said. “When we watched the film not everything was touchdowns and 30-yard gains. So we have to make sure we keep track if he’s getting fatigued or if he’s taking a down off. We don’t ever take downs off.”
Although Johnson led UM in rushing attempts on Saturday for the first time this season, that probably won’t be the case often. Fisch wants to create opportunities for Johnson in space so his body doesn’t have to take a pounding.
Johnson’s high school coach, Daryle Heidelburg, said UM has used Johnson exactly how he expected they would.
“To me, it felt like I was coaching Saturday’s game because it looked awfully familiar to the way we used him here,” said Heidelburg, who said he watched Saturday’s game from his office computer. “A screen pass here, a couple pitches to the outside there, a kickoff return. That’s the way I tried to preserve his body.
“Duke is a smart runner. He’s not going to take any cheap shots. So far, he’s done pretty much what we all expected. Duke is just being Duke.”
Heidelburg said Johnson, who ran for 5,109 yards, 70 touchdowns on 504 attempts (10.14 average) in his final three years at Norland, never carried the ball more in one game than last year’s state semifinal come-from-behind win at Palmetto when he ran 27 times for 375 yards and three touchdowns.
But if the Canes (2-1, 1-0 ACC) need to amp up Johnson’s workload a little this week at Georgia Tech (2-1, 1-1 ACC), Heidelburg believes he could handle it.
The Yellow Jackets rank 18th in total defense, 20th in scoring defense, 26th against the pass and 34th against the run.
Johnson, though, isn’t going to ask for more touches. He’s a freshman and it’s just not his style.
“If it’s in my role this week to make a big play and help the team out, that’s what I’ll do,” Johnson said after Saturday’s home opener. “I’m just basically here to do my role.”