Duke Johnson announced on Sunday what many have expected for some time now: He is going pro.
UM’s star running back will enter his name into the NFL Draft and forgo his senior season with the Miami Hurricanes.
“I will be going to the NFL next year,” said Johnson at a news conference at UM’s Mann Auditorium inside the Schwartz Center. “In the NFL, backs don’t really get too much value, so I think it’s best that I leave and get a jump while I can and do what’s best for me.”
His announcement came a day after Saturday’s 24-21 loss to South Carolina in the Duck Commander Independence Bowl, which also was his mother Cassandra Mitchell’s 45th birthday.
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Johnson said it was one of his presents to her.
“I think it’s special in a way because we didn’t know which bowl game we were going to, and I knew I wasn’t really going to make a decision until after the bowl game, and it just happened to fall on her birthday,” said Johnson, who projects he will go in the second or third round. “I think it’s a blessing.”
He looks forward to being able to provide for his mother, who he says provided so much for him in his upbringing.
“Everything I do is for her — her and my grandmother, who sacrifice so much,” Johnson said. “My grandmother is someone who actually took care of me a lot when my mom was at work and was trying to find a better way for us.
“This decision is made for them, too, just to help them out and put them in a better situation because of all the hard work they did for me and my family growing up.”
The 5-9, 206-pound junior finishes his collegiate career as UM’s all-time leading rusher (3,519 yards) and the program’s leader in career all-purpose yards (5,523) in 33 games as a Cane.
In what turned out to be his final outing donning UM’s orange and green in Saturday’s bowl game, Johnson rushed for 143 yards on 24 carries. It was the 14th 100-yard performance of his career, tying him with Edgerrin James and Clinton Portis for the UM record.
Johnson says it was a tough decision for him — one that he didn’t make final in his mind until the team left for Shreveport, Louisiana, for the bowl game — because of his passion for the program, but the short shelf life of running backs in the NFL ultimately was the key factor.
“Of course there was back-and-forth,” said Johnson, who ended his final season with 1,652 rushing yards and a first-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference selection. “As a kid, I always wanted to come here, loved it, didn’t want to leave it. At the same time, the life for running backs isn’t that high. I think it’s best to get out when I can.”
And there was no need for Johnson to continue putting his body at risk without getting paid to do so, especially after a broken ankle cut his sophomore season five games short.
RISK OF INJURY
“That was enough thought for me,” Johnson said. “It was something I don’t want to go through again, so I think that was a decision that played a part — injury and is it worth the risk?”
Johnson sustained another injury scare with just over five minutes to play in his final game Saturday. It appeared he injured his ankle on a play where he lost a fumble as he was getting tackled. After trainers gave him a look, he was able to walk under his own power. Although he didn’t re-enter the game, he said he could have if the game went into overtime.
Johnson’s successful three-year run with the Canes came during a rough stretch for UM as a program. Saturday’s loss put the team at 6-7 for its first losing season since 2007 and third since 1980. The Hurricanes went 22-16 over his three seasons.
On top of the hardships on the field, off of it there was the looming cloud of the NCAA sanctions from the Nevin Shapiro scandal, which stood over the program from the time Johnson was committed as a recruit to halfway through his sophomore season.
KEPT HIS COMMITMENT
Johnson didn’t waver on his commitment to UM, and the program is grateful for that.
“I think it just says a lot about what he believes in,” athletic director Blake James told the Miami Herald. “He wanted to be a University of Miami Hurricane, he wanted to come in and be a part of this program, regardless of what was going on around him at the time. That wasn’t going to change his commitment.
“One of the great Hurricanes, and I look forward to watching him on Sundays.”
Rising sophomore Joe Yearby and rising junior Gus Edwards are expected to carry the rushing load next season for the Hurricanes. Trayone Gray, depending on if coaches keep him at running back, will also compete for playing time along with a trio of talented high school seniors currently committed to the Canes in Jordan Scarlett (Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas), Mark Walton (Miami Booker T. Washington) and Dexter Williams (Orlando West Orange).
Johnson will continue taking classes toward his degree in the spring.