Miami Hurricanes RB Duke Johnson is healthy again and refocused with a vengeance

Duke Johnson heard two pops and knew his season was over. Now he’s back in better shape than ever, determined to lead the Hurricanes to their first Atlantic Coast Conference title.

08/28/2014 2:00 PM

09/08/2014 8:16 PM

He’s a wedding crasher, havoc-maker and overall terror in the backfield, but mostly, Randy “Duke’’ Johnson is a really nice guy.

So, if you should see him roaming the University of Miami campus, hitting the lanes for some bowling or grabbing a bite at a local eatery, please don’t stare.

Walk right up and say, “Hi.”

“I wouldn’t say everybody knows me, but when I go out to this place or I go out to that place people give me looks like, ‘Is that him?’ ” said the UM running back, a candidate for several national awards despite returning from a broken ankle sustained Nov. 2 at Florida State.

“If you’re going to look at me and think that it’s me, you should come up and ask instead of staring. When people talk to me, I find it cool. They’ll come up and say, ‘How is your ankle?’ or ‘I hope you have a great season,’ or ‘Good to see you walking.’ ’’

Johnson, surely a fan favorite among the most ardent Miami followers, will be running, not walking, every chance he can in 2014.

For the past two seasons, this hometown Hurricane with the impish grin and intense work ethic has come tantalizingly close to reaching the coveted 1,000-yard rushing mark.

In 2012, Johnson’s freshman season, he played in all 12 games at tailback and kick returner, making five starts and rushing for a UM freshman-record 947 yards and 10 touchdowns. Named the ACC Rookie of the Year, the freshman All-American was the nation’s No. 2 kick returner and set a UM single-season record with 892 kick-return yards and two touchdowns. His 2,060 all-purpose yards were second-most in program history behind Willis McGahee’s 2,108 in 2002.

Last season, Johnson was on his way to crushing the 1,000-yard benchmark for elite running backs before he got injured in Game No. 8 at Tallahassee. Going into that game, Johnson ranked third in the nation in all-purpose yards (182.8 per game), 10th in kickoff returns (29.2-yard average), 11th in rushing yards per game (117.6) and 20th in total rushing yards, with 823.

Johnson broke his ankle on a fourth-and-2, 1-yard gain with 1:22 left in the third quarter and the Canes trailing FSU 35-14. He had started that offensive series with rushes of 23 yards, 8 yards, 3 yards and the lone yard that ended his season. He finished with 97 yards that game, giving him 920 for the season.

“There wasn’t really pain, it was just numb,’’ Johnson said. “You’d think there’d be pain and [I’d] be screaming. I heard it pop twice and then it went numb from there. I figured the season was over, so I kind of prepared myself for it.’’

UM went into the FSU game 7-0 and ended the season 9-4. The pain of watching his teammates from the sideline was excruciating, Johnson said, and drove him to rehabilitate and refocus with a vengeance, returning to the Hurricanes in the best shape of his life.

“Whenever they lost after that injury, it was like walking on eggshells around the house,’’ said Johnson’s mother, Cassandra Mitchell, who works for Miami-Dade Corrections in court services, bringing inmates into courtrooms for trials. “When he first had the surgery, he was questioning himself and going through a lot emotionally.

“Now he can’t wait to get back on the field and run through the smoke again.’’

Johnson is up to 206 pounds after playing much of last season just under 190. This summer he ran as fast as 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash and averaged 4.42. And he added substantial muscle to his upper body to help him through the wear and tear of blocking and barreling through the defense.

“People are drawn to people that play with their heart,’’ said UM strength and conditioning coach Andreu Swasey. “Everytime Duke steps on the field he’s passionate. And yet for as talented as he is, he’s a humble personality. Good character kid — like a little super hero.’’

Sophomore Walter Tucker described Johnson as a “freak of nature.’’ Tucker, a two-way player at fullback and linebacker, has seen Johnson from both perspectives. “He squats [435 pounds] and stiff-arms kids to the ground,’’ Tucker said. “He got his cut skills back. To me he’s a beast.’’

UM coach Al Golden just wants Johnson “to pick up where he left off,’’ though he is expected to be integrated slowly into special-teams play and will be doing a lot more pass catching in 2014.

“He had great discipline at the end of last year,’’ Golden said of Johnson. “He was running differently in those last 3 1/2 games, as strong and as hard as I’ve ever seen him run, and delivering stiff arms, lowering his pads.

“... He’s smart enough to get you on a seam, get you on the outside or inside. If there are two defenders adjacent,’’ the coach said, Johnson can “get one of them to move and find a soft spot. He’s running really well between the tackles. I think that’s the biggest difference right now, his ability to cram and stay in and not bounce everything.’’

Golden respects Johnson for his Hurricanes heart, and how he committed to UM during the NCAA scandal and never budged from his word, never even visited another campus. “I think he’s a fan favorite because of the loyalty he had to the city, to the University of Miami and the community. That resonates with fans, and in a lot of ways that’s how our fans see themselves — being resilient and loyal.’’

The coach played a part in UM’s “Renewed’’ marketing campaign, and in helping initiate the plan for Johnson to crash the wedding of Susana and Pedro Lopez in early June. Pedro is a season-ticket holder and Hurricanes fanatic, and was floored when Johnson, accompanied by UM officials, came to the party with mascot Sebastian the Ibis. UM filmed a video of the surprise.

“That was fun,’’ Johnson said, laughing. “I especially enjoyed the reactions of their families.

“You have to be loyal to the people who are loyal to you. The city of Miami made me who I am. This is my hometown, this is where I was born and raised. Everybody around here loves me, and I love them.’’

Johnson hopes he can earn his degree in sports administration sometime this academic year, which would allow him the option of forgoing his senior season to enter the NFL Draft. It’s too early for that type of decision, he said. For now he is focusing on the task at hand: Louisville on Labor Day night in front of an expected sold-out crowd and millions of television viewers.

“We have the potential to be great,’’ Johnson said, “but what I’m hoping for is to finally win the Coastal Division and the Atlantic Coast Conference championship.

“… If I need to carry the load then I will, no problem. But I believe I have enough weapons around me to where I don’t have to.’’

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