Converted RB Devon Johnson key to Marshall's hopes for a perfect season
To be clear, Devon Johnson doesn’t harbor any dreams of playing long snapper.
But if his team needs it, the junior running back for No. 23 Marshall is willing to switch positions. Again.
A 6-foot-1, 243-pounder, Johnson likes to joke that outside of the quarterbacks, he knows the Thundering Herd’s playbook better than anyone. He should. Originally recruited as a linebacker, Johnson switched over to tight end when he arrived in Huntington, W.Va., in 2012. Then, the day before fall camp this season, Johnson got some news from coach Doc Holliday: The Herd needed him in the backfield.
Some upperclassmen might struggle with a move so late in their career. Johnson clearly isn’t one of them. The converted back has rushed for 931 yards, an average of 133 per game, good enough for No. 9 in the country, and 11 touchdowns. Not bad for a player who hadn’t carried the ball since 2011.
“When I got here, I wanted to be a linebacker and sometimes I miss the little things: getting a sack, blitzing a quarterback, forcing him to hurry up and throw,” says Johnson, who has also caught five passes for 98 yards with two scores. “But me moving around has helped the team. If they want me to be a long snapper, I’ll be a long snapper. Quarterback is the one position I’d like to play just once, to see the difference, and how much harder it is to communicate with the whole line.”
Holliday has other feelings on this.
“Uh, I’m not sure we’re going to go that direction,” he says. “To do that, I’d probably have to take No. 12 off the field.”
Understandably, no one wants Rakeem Cato going anywhere. A dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate, the senior quarterback accounts for more than 300 yards of total offense per game, and he broke Russell Wilson's NCAA record by throwing a touchdown pass in his 39th consecutive game last Saturday. Cato and Johnson are the chief reasons why Marshall (7-0) is in position to finish the regular season undefeated.
The Herd don’t see any reason to hide their ambition.
“We try to focus on the main goal, which is an undefeated season,” Johnson says. “But that comes from achieving little goals: Be in the top 10 offensively, the top 20 defensively, record the most tackles [in conference], stuff like that.”
It’s going well so far. Marshall ranks second nationally in total offense (574.9 yards per game), second only to Baylor (579.0). It sits 27th in total defense, allowing 336.3 yards per game. The knock against the Herd, as a member of Conference USA, is their schedule is loaded with easy games. That means anything less than a perfect season would be severely disappointing.
|Aug. 30||at Miami (Ohio)||W, 42-27|
|Sept. 6||Rhode Island||W, 48-7|
|Sept. 13||Ohio||W, 44-14|
|Sept. 20||at Akron||W, 48-17|
|Oct. 4||at Old Dominion||W, 56-14|
|Oct. 11||Middle Tennessee||W, 49-24|
|Oct. 18||at FIU||W, 45-13|
|Oct. 25||Florida Atlantic||?|
|Nov. 8||at Southern Miss||?|
|Nov. 22||at UAB||?|
|Nov. 28||Western Kentucky||?|
Holliday, who won a BCS title at Florida as an assistant in 2006, doesn’t see any reason to sidestep the issue. He learned firsthand from former boss Urban Meyer -- who employed Holliday as his associate head coach at Florida and now runs the show at Ohio State -- that addressing expectations is the best course of action.
“We talk about how every Sunday, you pick up the paper and somebody gets beat that wasn’t supposed to -- and we need to make sure it’s not us,” Holliday says. “We’re not going to shut out all the talk, we’re going to embrace it. Hell, I never got a call from anybody [in the media] the first few years; I’m glad people are talking about us. But we have to understand -- coaches and players -- that along with all this comes a responsibility to do our jobs.”
Johnson heeds that advice, and understands from checking scores that many things are out of his control. He has a special appreciation for BYU a team he says “fights all the time, works so hard, stays out of trouble, and that you never really hear about.” He sympathized when the Cougars lost quarterback Taysom Hill for the season (broken leg) and with him, their shot at going undefeated. (BYU lost to Utah State 35-20 the night Hill got hurt and has since dropped two more games.)
But instead of stressing about where the Herd might end up in the postseason, Johnson has spent the first nine weeks trying to perfect “the little things” that separate good backs from great ones. He has paid special attention to his footwork and vision, aided by the guidance of running backs coach Chris Barclay.
“We ask our tight ends to do an awful lot, so he was in the backfield a lot already when he was a receiving threat,” Holliday explains. “He had to learn so much as a tight end, moving to running back was probably really simple for him.
“Coaches talk a lot about guys that have it, ones who just find a way to make plays. He’s one of those guys. He can run really well, he’s got great pad level and he understands pass protection and how to pick up blitzes. If you’ve got to coach the heck out of a running back at every snap, you probably recruited the wrong guy.”
He might have come to Marshall to play a different position, but Johnson is clearly the right guy. His linebacking history helps. Johnson can sense change in a would-be tackler’s run rate, and usually anticipates when a defender is about to “get sneaky,” starting high and shooting low in hopes of colliding with Johnson.
One of his main jobs: Keep Cato upright.
“Luckily I haven’t missed a block that resulted in Cato ending up on the ground, thank God,” Johnson says.
Should Cato need a break, though, Johnson would be happy to take a snap in the Wildcat formation. For Marshall to stay unbeaten, Johnson needs to keep producing -- in whatever role he is assigned.