Before he tossed an 8-yard touchdown pass to Allen Hurns last week at Virginia, Hurricanes freshman running back Duke Johnson was having a hard time convincing coaches the trick play was a good idea.
But offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch said this week he believed that “when it was a prime-time situation’’ Johnson would deliver.
“I told the whole offense the first time “we get inside the 10-yard line we’re calling this play. And when we got to the 10-yard line, I didn’t want to be a liar,’’ Fisch said. “You have to hold your breath and say ‘We’re going to call it.’ And he executed fantastically well, threw a beautiful ball.’’
Fisch’s faith in Johnson is strong, but so is his belief in trick plays — especially of late.
In UM’s past three games, Fisch has called on three non-quarterbacks — Johnson, receiver Phillip Dorsett and third-string running back Dallas Crawford — to throw four combined passes on trick plays.
So far, there haven’t been any disasters. Dorsett is 2 for 2 for 26 yards with both completions to quarterback Stephen Morris. Crawford threw an incompletion, just missing an open receiver in the end zone against Virginia Tech.
So why has Fisch been going to his bag of tricks so often lately? Frankly, he likes the mismatches and opportunities they can create and he “likes to keep the guys involved.’’
“It’s the way I grew up and what I think,’’ Fisch said earlier this week. “And it’s fun.
“We’ll continue to do it if it’s the right defensive coverage. The times we’ve run them, we’ve had the right looks we’ve wanted. So as long we think we can get a look, we’ll do it. If we don’t think we’ll get a look, we won’t mess around with it.’’
Fisch said former Florida coach Steve Spurrier used to practice trick plays every week when Fisch was a graduate assistant there. Fisch said he spends a lot of time in the offseason studying trick plays, and Dorsett said the Canes practice them a few times a day “to see how it looks.’’
“I like that it throws the defense off,’’ said Dorsett, who threw a 16-yard touchdow pass last season at Virginia Tech and is now 3 for 3 in his career as a passer. “I remember last year when I threw the touchdown at Virginia Tech, [backup quarterback] Ryan Williams was like. ‘Phillip Dorsett threw his first touchdown before me.’ We laughed about it.’’
Thanks to his big day returning kickoffs last Saturday at Virginia, Johnson now ranks third nationally in kickoff return yardage with a 35.41 average.
The Hurricanes, who ranked 71st a year ago in kickoff returns, rank eighth overall with a 28.05 average. In 2010, UM ranked 102nd (19.66 average).
So could Duke end up being the best kickoff-return man in Canes history?
Well, he already owns the school record for most kickoff return yardage in a season (779). But according to the record book, Tremain Mack owns the highest average (1996, 37.71 yards per return, 14 returns for 528 yards). Devin Hester is next with a 28.72 average set in 2003.
Special teams coordinator Micheal Barrow had high praise for the blocking of Hurns, Mike James, Raphael Kirby, walk-on Nantambu Fentress, Maurice Hagens and Herb Waters.
“Obviously Duke, he hit it hard, found a crease,” Barrow said of Johnson’s 95-yard kick return for a touchdown. “But those guys laid on a barb wire for him, tried to block guys to the Gatorade cooler and gave him an opportunity to find a button to run off.’’
UM ranks 13th nationally in kickoff coverage defense, but it’s an area coach Al Golden and Barrow agreed this week the team has to improve on. Of UM’s 56 kickoffs this season, only six have gone for touchbacks. Of the 120 teams at the FBS level, only 14 teams have single-digit touchbacks.
“A few times we’ve missed a layup, had a guy inside the 20 and missed a tackle,’’ Barrow said. “We also have to get better ball placement where scheme is set up. We went from being one of the tops in the ACC to now we kind of slipped on a banana the last few games. We have to get back to our training and what we do well.’’