Joe Yearby said he still talks to Duke Johnson every now and then.
The latest message from the University of Miami’s all-time leading rusher to his successor: “Keep working,” Yearby said. “The sky is the limit.”
Johnson, now a rookie with the Cleveland Browns, left Yearby some mighty big shoes to fill when he bolted a year early for the NFL last spring. But Friday night, Yearby gave UM fans a reason to believe he’s pretty special, too.
The 5-9, 202-pound sophomore, who ran for more yards at Miami Central (5,593) than what Johnson did (5,335) when he played high school ball for Miami Norland, posted career highs of 146 yards rushing and 97 yards receiving in Friday night’s 44-20 win at FAU.
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Yearby’s 243 yards from scrimmage in his second career start marked only the fifth time under coach Al Golden’s tenure at UM that a running back had more than 200 yards from scrimmage in a game. Johnson, of course, had the other four, posting a career-best 286 yards from scrimmage in last year’s 30-6 romp at Virginia Tech.
Most importantly for UM (2-0), though, was that Yearby delivered his biggest plays when UM needed them the most. Tied at 20 midway through the third quarter and struggling to separate from the Owls (0-2), sophomore quarterback Brad Kaaya found a streaking Yearby over the middle for a 52-yard catch and run down to the FAU 1-yard line. Yearby then plunged into the end zone with his second touchdown on the next play.
“When they scored to make it 20 to 20, a lot of the guys smiled,” Kaaya said. “I looked at Joe and [freshman running back] Mark [Walton] and said, ‘Let’s go, this is what we live for.’”
Said Yearby of his catch: “I just knew Brad needed me. So I came through for him.”
A man of few words, Yearby could be needed a lot more in the coming weeks.
Although Walton scored three touchdowns against FAU and showed some tough running on his last score, he finished with only 42 yards rushing on 14 carries and admitted he was a “little jittery” and was “missing holes” and “cracks in the defense.”
The true freshman is averaging 5.29 yards per carry compared to Yearby’s team-leading 7.75 average, and against tougher competition those holes will close faster.
UM’s receivers, meanwhile, continued Friday to drop balls. The Canes also converted only 3 of their 13 third downs and are converting at 25 percent in their first two games combined, disappointing when you consider the opponents they have faced will only get tougher from here.
Scoring touchdowns in the red zone also remains an area to improve, Golden said. Last season, UM converted drives inside the 20 into touchdowns only 51.1 percent of the time (105th out of 128 teams).
Miami has scored TDs on eight of its 13 red-zone trips (61.5 percent) this season, barely middle of the pack.
Johnson at times could put the Canes on his back and keep them afloat in tough games. Can Yearby do the same? Friday was the first time he really did.
“This whole locker room has seen it, and we’ve always known that they are going to be special players,” Kaaya said of both Yearby and Walton. “They just have to keep going and keep getting better.”
More involvement in the passing game is one of those areas for Yearby. Johnson last season finished second on the team in receiving with 38 catches. After catching just seven passes in high school, Yearby has had to work on that part of his game. So far, he has been targeted eight times, fourth most on the team behind receivers Herb Waters (15), Rashawn Scott (15) and Malcolm Lewis (10).
“I feel like it’s coming along good because the defense is kind of unsuspecting right now,” Yearby said of his involvement in the passing game.
Sharing the ball certainly doesn’t bother Yearby. He wants Walton to thrive and knows the benefit of a two- or three-horse backfield, having shared one with Dalvin Cook at Central.
Cook on Saturday put Florida State on his back, rushing for a career-high 266 yards in a 34-14 win over USF, a team like FAU that wasn’t expected to give the Seminoles much of a fight.
“I’ve never been the jealous type,” Yearby said. “When Mark scores I say good job, just eat. There’s always more out there.”