Ottis Anderson has never met Duke Johnson. But the Miami Hurricane great and MVP of the 1991 Super Bowl has seen him play enough that he knows it’s a matter of time before Johnson breaks his all-time UM rushing record — or goes into the NFL tantalizingly close.
“Listen, for over 30 years my record has stood against a lot of great running backs that have left the University of Miami and had stellar careers in the NFL,” said Anderson, 57, who gained 10,273 rushing yards and 81 touchdowns during 14 seasons with the Cardinals and Giants. “I’m hoping that as the legacy passes from me to Duke, that someone else can go off into the NFL and have just as productive years as all of us who came close to my record — or didn’t come close.”
Be assured that Anderson — and millions of others — will be watching at 8p.m. Saturday when Johnson’s Hurricanes (6-3, 3-2 Atlantic Coast Conference) host their most formidable opponent of the season: No. 2 Florida State (9-0, 6-0), winner of 25 consecutive games and the team Johnson broke his right ankle against a year ago Nov. 2 in Tallahassee.
“I actually circled the date I got hurt, but didn’t circle the game,” said Johnson, a junior who ranks seventh nationally in rushing yards (1,213), eighth in rushing yards per game (134.8), fourth in yards per carry (7.68) and fifth in all-purpose yards (1,165.1). “I approach every game the same way, same mind-set, regardless of what happened last year.”
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Johnson started the season 15th in all-time rushing yards at Miami (1,867), and is now 252 yards shy of breaking Anderson’s 3,331-yard mark set from 1975-78. That’s remarkable in itself because Anderson, who grew up in West Palm Beach, gained those yards on UM teams that finished 2-8, 3-8, 3-8 and 6-5 while he was in Coral Gables.
Johnson already is the all-time UM leader in all-purpose yards, with 4,939.
Among the Hurricanes Johnson has passed this season while ascending the rushing ladder: Alonzo Highsmith, Lamar Miller, Stephen McGuire, Frank Gore, Willis McGahee, Clinton Portis, and most recently, James Jackson and Edgerrin James.
Portis, now an analyst for the ACC, had 2,523 career yards from 1999 through 2001. He told the Miami Herald on Sunday that Johnson deserves to be more than just on the periphery of Heisman Trophy talk that includes Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah (1,250 rushing yards).
“Other players are having great years when you look at the running back position,” Portis said, “but Duke has put Miami on his shoulders in making them noticeable again. Look at how he affects the game. Those other guys usually have an opportunity to play four quarters and get their stats up. Against the ACC, Duke performs and leaves the game in the third quarter.”
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher has noticed. His Seminoles are ranked 35th nationally in rushing defense, allowing 135.7 ground yards per game.
“Duke’s as good a tailback as there is anywhere,” Fisher said Monday during his weekly press conference. “You don’t realize how strong he is. Even though he’s a shorter guy… [he’s] very strong in his hips and legs, very quick body movements, very fast.”
If Johnson performs Saturday like he has in UM’s past three victories — 162 yards rushing against Cincinnati, 249 yards rushing at Virginia Tech and 177 against North Carolina — the talk will grow much louder.
“Finish strong,’’ that’s what Edge [Edgerrin James] told me my junior year,” Portis said. “That’s what Duke needs to do in this big game against Florida State. If they can knock off Florida State, he would have to be a huge reason that happened.”
UM offensive coordinator James Coley said Monday that Johnson “absolutely’’ is worthy of Heisman consideration. “He’s put a lot of work into this season,’’ Coley said. “He’s beginning to see the fruits of his labor and he should be up for every award by the way he’s played the last several games.’’
UM coach Al Golden, never one to dwell on individual awards during the season, was asked recently whether Johnson has made a case for the Heisman.
“You’re talking to the wrong guy,” Golden said. “You guys are the ones that watch all the different teams and get all the different stats. I know he’s playing at a high level. It’s hard to imagine anybody playing better right now.”
Johnson insists he doesn’t care about the accolades, though he said he likes that his mom would get excited if he got invited to New York on Dec. 13 as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy ceremony.
“I don’t really do it for the awards,” he said. “That’s not what I’m in it for.”
UM junior rush end Tyriq McCord, who played at Tampa Jefferson High, faced Johnson’s Miami Norland in the state title game their junior year. Jefferson won 44-34, but Johnson still rushed for 135 yards on eight carries.
McCord said Johnson “was the real deal” then. “We watched film on him. I remember my defensive coordinator was like, ‘This kid is going to be something great and we’ve got to be able to stop him.’
“I’m glad I’m not the one that has to stop him now.”
Johnson said a win against the defending national champs would be great.
“Great team,’’ he said. “They play all three phases and always find a way to win. You can say what you want about them — ‘They had the team last year, they’re not this, they’re not that’ — at the end of the day, they find a way to win.’’
Johnson, who likes to verbally spar with the competition, said he’s saving the trash talk for Saturday. “I don’t think it’s football-like to talk through social media, to talk through tweets or texts. It’s best to just show what you can do.”
Anderson, now living in South Orange, N.J., had a simple message for Johnson and his teammates as they approach game day.
“Keep the tradition alive,” he said. “Find a way to beat Florida State.”