Miami Hurricanes’ Duke Johnson looks like royalty in debut

We have seen the face and the future of Miami Hurricanes football and need but a single syllable to say it:


No. Wait.


The exclamatory is necessary if you want that syllable to sound like what Duke Johnson looked like here Saturday afternoon in sparking and lifting UM to its season-opening 41-32 victory over Boston College.

I’m not even sure if the surname won’t seem superfluous pretty quickly. Duke will be enough to describe the kid who is putting the “oh!” back in UM’s offense. Who knows? Duke might even be enough to lead the Canes’ determined effort back toward eventual national relevance.

That is why he is here. Why he stayed home. Why he didn’t run from the looming cloud of the NCAA. Because he has one goal.

“To take UM back where it used to be,” says Duke Johnson.

This was the remarkable collegiate debut of the blue chip, true-freshman running back from the backyard, from Miami Norland High. This was a kid staring down a ton of hype, then rising up to meet it, and beat it. And if what we just saw of Randy Johnson, nicknamed Duke in honor of a relative, is not a mirage but just the beginning, I think Canes fans have a new star on which to hitch their dreams.

No one-man show

There was other stuff to like about UM’s overall performance as it began its 87th season of football and second under the aegis of coach Al Golden, he of the signature orange necktie over crisp white dress shirt.

Junior quarterback Stephen Morris, running the offense now, looked every bit up to the task, poised, in control, strong-armed, accurate. The squad as a whole showed mettle in overcoming an early 14-0 deficit on the Atlantic Coast Conference road and winning with something approaching command if not quite comfort.

All of that offense was needed for Miami to overcome its own slovenly defense against the pass, a malfeasance that somehow turned a Boston College quarterback named “Chase Rettig” into the second coming of Andrew Luck.

It made for a wild opener.

“I’m spent,” Golden began his post-mortem with the media, voice hoarse.

(The game was a coaching triumph for Golden and offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch, whose no-huddle attack caught BC by surprise and played to UM’s advantage in speed and conditioning.)

Yes, Miami will need a lot better pass defense (and pass rush) if these lightly regarded, youthful Hurricanes — picked ninth-best in a 12-team ACC — are to improve on last year’s 6-6 record.

What jumped out of this game, though, at least for me, wasn’t the negativity over defensive lapses or even the impressiveness of Morris, but rather the electricity and potential embodied in Duke Johnson.

He produced 214 total yards on only 13 touches. That included 135 yards rushing on a mere seven carries. And that included game-changing touchdown runs of 54 and then 56 yards.

Johnson busted or slid through six would-be tacklers on that 54-yard run. It might have been more but he was moving so fast I couldn’t keep up. That was even though “as soon as I got the ball I was stumbling,” the kid said.

The 56-yard burst found Johnson hardly touched as he hip-swiveled down the field, turning around defenders like Tim Hardaway used to delight in doing with those crossover dribbles of his. Call it the Duke Juke (patent pending).

“He prepares like a senior. He’s in great condition. He’s a pleasure to coach,” Golden said of his new star. “He’s got a good gear.”

Morris busted into a smile when asked to describe Johnson.

“A funny, happy-to-be-around guy,” the quarterback said. “He has the want-to-attitude.”

After Johnson’s first long scoring run, Miami rapper and Canes diehard Luther Campbell gushed on Twitter that Duke would end up as the greatest runner in UM history. I thought it a rush to hyperbole.

After the second long scoring run, I began to reconsider.

UM history is important to Johnson. It’s why he stayed. He even found old video of ex-Canes star Clinton Portis on YouTube and compared that with tapes of himself.

His own stardom waits but for now Johnson is as humble as you’d expect of a teenager who only three months ago attended his senior prom. He speaks with yes-sirs and no-sirs. He admitted to “freshman jitters” before Saturday’s kickoff. He is deferential to older teammates such as senior runner Mike James, his road-trip roommate, saying, “This is their backfield. I’m just coming in to do my role.”

We want more

That role will change, though. Should change.

Johnson, at 5-9 and 185 pounds, might never be a 25-carry-a-game workhorse, but anyone capable of 54- and 56-yard touchdown runs in one game must see more than seven carries.

More Duke, please. Lots.

This could turn out to be the greatest Duke since John Wayne. Sports’ best Duke since Duke basketball. As big dogs go, the only bigger Duke might be Marmaduke.

OK I’m getting carried away. That’s all right, though.

I wouldn’t blame Canes fans for feeling that way today. For feeling nourished.

The program’s last of five national championships was in ever-distant 2001, with a gradual lapse into mediocrity and now this threatening NCAA cloud.

UM fans are allowed to believe as much as hope that this coach, Golden, will be a leader here befitting his improbable surname.

Just as fans are allowed to believe as much as hope that Saturday unfurled something very special in the budding new star who hardly requires a surname at all.


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