Duke Johnson: The Diamond In The Rough

With NFL teams always looking for the next great quarterback, and the trend of receivers and linemen going early in the draft on the uptick, the running back position has fallen by the wayside. For better or worse, all but the most elite running backs are now devalued and largely seen as expendable. It will likely be more of the same in the 2015 draft, despite a star-studded crop of running backs available.

Miami running back Duke Johnson may epitomize the lack of interest in running backs early in the draft. Johnson is a first-round talent who will likely end up a second-round steal. Johnson is not only arguably the most well-rounded running back in this year’s draft, but might be the diamond in the rough of this year’s ACC class.

Johnson is unlikely to hear his name called in the first-round not due to a lack of talent, but rather a glut of talent across the rest of the board. And the talent is not just across college football as a whole — which it is — but it is also ultra competitive at the undervalued running back position in this years draft.

With first-round spots devoted to running backs likely at a premium, Johnson will have trouble surpassing the likes of Heisman finalist Melvin Gordon of Wisconsin and the immensely talented Todd Gurley from Georgia. Gordon lead all running backs in rushing yards (2,587) and touchdowns (29) in 2014, and held the single-game rushing record for one week with 408 yards. Gurley also managed to finish with 911 yards despite playing only six games, the combined effect of a suspension and a season-ending ACL injury.

Johnson will also have to deal with the less known, but equally talented Jay Ajayi of Boise State (1,823 yards on 28 touchdowns) and Indiana’s Tevin Coleman (2,036 yards and 15 touchdowns). As talented as Johnson is, his 1,652 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns likely won’t measure up to stats first NFL general managers. What deserves a second look is Johnson’s ability as a dual-threat talent. As a junior in 2014 Johnson also caught 38 receptions for 421 yards and three touchdowns.

Johnson’s ability not only as a rusher, but as a pass catching back, explains why he was able to ascend to the top of the Hurricanes’ record books in only 33 games, spread over just three seasons. In October Johnson surpassed Santana Moss’ school record of 4,394 all-purpose yards, and became just the third Hurricane to break the 4,000-yard mark in their tenure at Miami (Moss and Ottis Anderson were the others). Just over a month later Johnson claimed the Hurricane record for total rushing yards, besting Anderson’s mark of 3,331 yards. Before getting to Anderson, Johnson also passed the likes Edgerrin James and Willis McGahee, household names in Coral Gables and beyond in their own right.

Johnson combines his pure speed and big-play ability with a surprising physicality that allows him to break tackles on the run. His physical running style is often underestimated because of his size (5’9″, 207 pounds), but it is a credit to his work ethic and heart on the field. This was on full display in October when the Hurricanes dismantled Virginia Tech 30-6 in Blacksburg. Johnson shredded the Hokies early and often, building a seemingly insurmountable lead by halftime, and then he kept running and running…and running. With the game well in hand the junior refused to exit the game, finishing with 249 yards on the ground and two scores, before finally limping off the field late in the contest.

Johnson has been bitten by the injury bug before, breaking his ankle during his sophomore season, and that remains a concern due to his style of play. Still, a running back who combines speed and excellent field vision and has a solid pair of hands to compliment it shouldn’t be overlooked this draft. His ability as a special teams weapon on kick returns should also do nothing but elevate his stock. With running backs often falling down the draft board, Johnson will be passed on by many GMs without a doubt, but that’s a mistake. Whichever team finally calls Johnson’s name will be getting perhaps the best value in this draft, and a potential game changer.

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