NFL Draft Preview 2015: RB Duke Johnson
The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series sprints on. This week, the focus is on running backs. Today’s rushing prospect is Duke Johnson out of Miami.
After Johnson's three years at the U, he is considered to be one of the best backs and players to ever play for the illustrious university. It didn't take very long for Duke to make an impact for the Hurricanes; he posted a freshman record of 947 yards while adding ten touchdowns, only starting in five games. He also established himself as a dual-threat in the passing game during his freshman season, reaching over 2,000 all-purpose yards (second all-time in school history). Special teams? Yup, he covered all the bases. Still as a freshman in 2012, another Miami milestone was shattered for the most kick return yards in a single season, 892. This tremendous freshman campaign was only a sign of what more was to come for this kid at Miami.
In his sophomore season (despite only playing in eight games due to a season ending ankle injury), Duke still managed to rack up 920 yards with six TDs. His performance was still able to award him First-team All-ACC honors. The 2013 injury certainly hampered Johnson in terms of his growth and capabilities, but the talented back would leave the collegiate gridiron on the highest of pedestals. A junior this past fall, the Duke himself would run for 1,652 yards with an average of close to seven yards-a-carry. He would become the leading rusher in Miami history with 3,519 yards, passing greats like Ottis Anderson, Clinton Ports, and Frank Gore. This was just part of Duke's magical 2014 year; he would reach a career-high 249 yards against Virginia Tech and add 130 more versus Florida State, two of the best defensive teams in the nation.
Some backs are speed guys, others rely on power. Duke Johnson has both in his bag of tricks. At 5'9" and 207 lbs., skeptics might say the Miami back is too undersized to be effective in the big leagues. I would beg to differ. Duke is a violent competitor who will fight for every inch ahead of him, and you will not see many guys (regardless of size) who will run as tough as he does. Bringing this kid down is no easy feat by any means, Johnson is so good at shrugging of tacklers by keeping his feet churning and utilizing his deadly stiff-arm. However, do not be mistaken. As much as he would love to run through a defender, he has no problem running by them either.
The U product is explosive in between the tackles and around the corner once he puts his foot in the dirt and decides where he wants to go. He is not the fastest back out there, but he might just be the quickest. He is shifty and slippery when given open space, possessing the ability to start and stop so suddenly. Simply put, he is a nightmare one-on-one in the open field. Another admirable quality is his great patience in the backfield behind his lineman. He has a great sense of waiting for things to develop before attacking the line of scrimmage. His vision is also tremendous and allows him to find cutback lanes as a one-cut style runner. A back like Johnson excels in a zone-blocking system where he can pick his way, find a cutback hole, and then hit the hole with "one-cut." Below exhibits how Johnson is the total package: he is patient, trusts his vision, utilizes two jump-cuts, and he is off to the races. Miami's all-time leading rusher is also a very reliable pass catcher. He was used often in the passing game in college and can be split out as another receiver.
To be honest, it was hard to find much to be concerned about with Johnson. There is obviously an injury history here, but his 2014 success shows he has been pretty healthy of late. One big thing to worry about is ball security at the next level; Duke had the ball popped out noticeably often when watching tape. Coaches hate turnovers, and he will need to clean that up pronto. It seems Johnson can also pick the wrong holes to run through at times. This is not a major concern, but I felt he sometimes passed up great gains for just good ones by failing to find the proper lane. His vision is very good, but could improve.
Besides for a few hiccups that can easily be cleaned up, I'm convinced this kid will be a stud back in the NFL. What he lacks in size and build he can make up for with his heart and bruising mentality. You know Johnson is going to give you his all for four quarters, and that is what will make him such a reassuring pick in about a month. To think of what he did at Miami with all the history they have at that position is incredible. Nothing is guaranteed by any means, but when your name is mentioned with guys who have had success in the pros like Willis McGahee, Frank Gore, and Edgerrin James, you have set yourself up for success. The film doesn't lie: Johnson has all the tools to make it happen, and the ball is in his court. Looks like the second or third round is his fate, but expect the second with a slight chance to push into the first. I'm not saying Duke is better than Melvin Gordon III or Todd Gurley, but it wouldn't surprise me if he had a greater NFL career out of the three. Yeah, put me on the record.
Johnson's skill set is so complete it could fit just about anywhere in the league. With that being said, two spots stick out. Like my article last week, I'm going to pick division rivals once again. In the AFC South, Houston makes a lot of sense. Arian Foster is obviously the feature back for the Texans, but he is quickly approaching 30-years-old and has incurred a series of injuries. What better for Johnson than to learn from one of the league's best one-cut backs and transition slowly into the starting role? Without a solidified quarterback situation in Houston, the running game will prove crucial and Johnson could help in that department instantly. Another interesting landing spot? Indianapolis with a former Hurricane mentor, Frank Gore. The two could split carries and add to an explosive offense bound to make a Super Bowl run. Man, that would be pretty cool.