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Duke's return: Miami RB has hopes on his shoulders

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (AP) Duke Johnson hardly ever shows his emotions.

Those around Miami's star running back, they aren't hiding anything right now.

His girlfriend is so afraid of flying that she's been nervous for months about getting on a plane for his comeback game, but insists missing Johnson's return is not an option so she's going to grit her teeth and board the jet this weekend. And his mother needed more than 100 tickets to accommodate just close friends and family for the Hurricanes' home opener.

''To say we're excited,'' his mother, Cassandra Prophet-Mitchell said, ''is putting it lightly.''

It's all with good reason. If Miami is going to have a championship season, hopes will largely rest on the relatively diminutive shoulders of her 5-foot-9 son - who could be dynamic enough to work his way into the Heisman Trophy conversation if all goes according to plan.

Johnson is bigger, stronger and even faster than ever now, and the broken ankle he suffered against Florida State last season is merely a memory. When the Hurricanes open their season at Louisville on Monday night, No. 8 will be the key to everything Miami wants to do offensively, a responsibility he welcomes.

''The quarterback will not have all the pressure,'' the soft-spoken Johnson said. ''I will accept that role.''

And he'll have it, or at least the majority of it, for certain. Johnson is entering his junior season, one that many people who can make at least semi-educated guesses on such topics believe will be his last before heading to the NFL.

Among active running backs who have played the last two seasons, Johnson's 6.6-yards-per-carry average ranks second in major college football. He's one of only four players nationally to enter this season with touchdowns four different ways - rushing, passing, returning and receiving - already on his college resume.

Here's the best way to illustrate his importance to Miami. He's appeared in 20 games with the Hurricanes. When he rushes for a touchdown, Miami is 11-0. When he doesn't, the Hurricanes have gone 3-6.

Miami coach Al Golden knows the hype machine will find Johnson this season. He also believes Johnson can handle whatever comes his way.

''He's matured now,'' Golden said. ''He's very process-oriented. He's very team-oriented. He's always been humble. That's not the issue. Now he has the tools to block everything out, do all the little things right every day. And that comes with maturity and growth. It's hard to imagine anybody on this team that developed more - physically, mentally, leadership-wise - from Tallahassee a year ago.''

The play that ended Johnson's season in Tallahassee last season was simple, really. His leg just got caught underneath him on a tackle, his ankle snapped, his season was over and with it so was Miami's realistic chance of going to the ACC title game.

''Just one of them plays that happened,'' Johnson said. ''A freak accident. I fell worse than that a lot, a lot worse, last year and nothing happened. Just one of them plays.''

He was an observer the rest of the way, including Miami's 36-9 loss to Louisville in the Russell Athletic Bowl.

If there was a game that Johnson could have picked not to miss, it would have been against Louisville, especially since there's so many players who, like him, hail from South Florida on that team.

He won't miss Monday night. Commence the comeback.

''One of the best running backs in the country,'' Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. ''It's certainly going to be a great challenge for us.''

Most of the attention during Miami's training camp surrounded the quarterback race, a competition that was won by true freshman Brad Kaaya. Johnson sees some parallels between he and Kaaya; both try to stay cool under pressure, both want to lead by example, neither is known to talk themselves up too much.

Kaaya has plenty of receivers to choose from at Miami. His best weapon will be the guy lining up seven yards behind him.

''Duke is an awesome player,'' Kaaya said. ''He pushes all of us to be great.''

And come Monday night, Miami probably won't have anyone more excited.

''I've been waiting to get going,'' Johnson said. ''It's time to go play football.''

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