Randy “Duke” Johnson’s favorite person in the world, his mother, asked him for a special favor just before the season started.
“I said, ‘Mama doesn’t want to put extra pressure on you,’ ” Cassandra Prophet Mitchell recalled, “ ‘but I really want to beat the Gators and Florida State this year. And we owe Virginia, because that game you had won — and for them to come steal it at the last minute …’ ”
Johnson, the No. 1 rusher in the nation after last week’s 186-yard performance against Florida Atlantic, barely needed a moment to respond.
“He said, ‘I got you, big dog!’ ” said Mitchell, not an ounce of doubt in her voice.
Johnson, at 19 still a teenager with an impish smile and soft-spoken demeanor, is a full-grown terror to most defenses.
Last week he led the country with his 19 carries for 186 yards and a touchdown — a 9.8-yard-per-carry average. He also took down two opponents on a block that enabled Herb Waters to run a 63-yard reverse for a touchdown in UM’s opening victory.
Florida on Saturday, however, will be another challenge altogether. Be assured the No. 12 Gators (1-0), who held Toledo in their season opener to 50 yards rushing, are game-planning for Miami’s 5-9, 196-pound sophomore on cruise control.
Starting middle linebacker Antonio Morrison, named to the 2012 Southeastern Conference Coaches’ All-Freshman Team, was suspended for the Toledo game but will be back Saturday. That likely gives Florida coach Will Muschamp only so much solace.
“Duke Johnson is an outstanding player,” Muschamp said. “We recruited him. The guy’s got a great competitive nature. He’s very similar to Chris Rainey — bigger version of that; a guy that can full speed, one cut, get the ball vertical.
“He makes people miss in space, runs hard and runs tough.”
Johnson also makes his receptions count. He had one catch for 38 yards Friday, but no kick returns — his favorite part of the game.
Johnson was the nation’s No. 2 kick returner in 2012, averaging 33 yards per return and setting Miami’s single-season record with 892 return yards and two touchdowns.
Seems like teams have finally figured out it’s better to kick to someone else.
“Everything is fun about returning kicks,” he said. “The way the other guys are coming down full speed, the way you have to trust your guys to make blocks. It’s all about trust, knowing your teammates are going to do what they’re supposed to do — and you’re going to take it to the house.
“But mostly I like kickoff returns because they let you answer back fast.”
Last season, Johnson’s accolades included Atlantic Coast Conference Rookie of the Year and second-team Walter Camp All-American. He rushed for a UM freshman-record 947 yards and 10 touchdowns. And his 2,060 all-purpose yards were the second-most in program history behind Willis McGahee’s 2,108 in 2002.
A self-proclaimed “Mama’s boy,” Johnson had his mother’s image tattooed on his left shoulder this past Fourth of July. “I cried with happiness,” said Mitchell, a Miami-Dade corrections officer for the Turner Guilford-Knight Correctional Center. “Then I said, ‘Duke, you could have at least given me a little nose job.’
“Duke just smiled.”
Johnson, who has an 8-ball (eight for his jersey number) tattooed inside a U on the other shoulder, said his mother — besides his Canes — is his world.
“Everything I do, I do for her,” he said, eyeing her image. “When she’s not around and I can’t talk to her as much as I want, I look over my shoulder and she’s always there.”
Johnson’s mom, who lives in Miramar, is now remarried to Miami Beach police detective Duane Mitchell.
Duke’s father, Randy Johnson Sr., died of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 2008 when Duke was 14. Observant Hurricanes fans will notice he recently added a “JR” to the back of his jersey.
“His real name is Randy Michael Thaddeus Johnson Jr.” his mother said.
Johnson was nicknamed Duke after his mother’s grandfather, William Howard “Duke” Coleman, who raised Cassandra near Tallahassee on the Georgia border.
Johnson, a Miami Norland High alum who runs a 4.4 second 40-yard dash, was named Mr. Florida Football as the state’s Class 5A Player of the Year in 2011. But his durability in college is still a concern. He was injured at times last season and not always productive against some of UM’s most formidable opponents.
He gained eight pounds of muscle in the offseason to prepare himself for what coaches hope will be about 20 carries a game.
“That guy is gifted,” fellow running back Eduardo Clements said. “Some things we might not see, he sees. Some things he does, we can’t.”
Offensive line coach Art Kehoe, who has coached a bunch of greats along the way to his five UM national titles, mostly loves Johnson’s toughness.
“As nice as he is and as great of a smile that he has and as talented as he is,” Kehoe said, “Duke is way tougher than everybody thinks. Just watch him finish his runs. He puts his hand in your face and he doesn’t run out of bounds.
“Man, I love that guy.”
Johnson, whose Twitter profile “DJ (G.U.M.P.)” stands for “Great Under Major Pressure,” said he feels no stress knowing defenses are keying on him, and UM fans are expecting greatness.
“It doesn’t change things at all,” he said. “I just play the same game of football I’ve been playing my whole life and let the outcome be the outcome.
“… I’m here to help this team win in any way I can.”