Duke Johnson: Heisman Odds and Season Outlook for Miami's Star RB

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistAugust 26, 2013

Duke Johnson: Heisman Odds and Season Outlook for Miami's Star RB

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    Duke Johnson, star running back for the Miami Hurricanes, is one of the Atlantic Coast Conference's top players, and, along with his quarterback Stephen Morris, Johnson is a sleeper candidate for the Heisman Trophy.

    Johnson burst onto the national scene in his collegiate debut as a freshman in 2012 when he scored two 50-plus-yard touchdowns against Boston College. Using that performance as a springboard, he went on to have one of the best seasons in school history.

    Fast-forward to the 2013 campaign, and Johnson is a player who certainly could be a Heisman contender come November—the final month of the regular season.

    But if he wants to remain in the Heisman picture for the remainder of the year, Johnson must shine during a couple of key games.


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    A 5-star recruit according to 247Sports' Composite Rankings, Randy "Duke" Johnson attended nearby Norland High School. He committed to the University of Miami exactly 500 days before he could sign a letter of intent, and Duke never wavered.

    By the time he arrived on campus, Johnson was a fan favorite due to his rock-solid commitment.

    By the time the 2012 regular season opener concluded, there were practically "Duke Johnson for Heisman" chants. Duke lit up the Boston College Eagles for 135 yards and two lengthy touchdown runs.

    Though the Hurricanes' loss to Kansas State did not showcase the same explosive Johnson, he still provided an electrifying kick return.

    Note: Mobile users, skip to 51:00 to see the highlight.

    Against Bethune Cookman the following week, Duke had a tremendous all-around game. Johnson ran for 98 yards and two scores, caught a screen pass and took it 50 yards for a touchdown and also took a kick return to the house.

    Following a 72-yard performance vs. Georgia Tech, Duke hit a four-game-long rough patch, and Miami lost three of four during this time.

    But Johnson found his way back on track during a prime-time matchup with ACC rival Virginia Tech. Duke, helped by a 65-yard touchdown, gained 100 yards on the ground and returned a kick 81 yards.

    Despite the 'Canes loss to Virginia, Duke ran for 150 yards, threw a touchdown pass and returned a kick for a score.

    Johnson capped off the season with 242 rushing yards and four scores over the last two games to bring his totals to 947 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. He added 892 yards and two touchdowns on kick returns, and his 33.0 yards-per-return average ranked second-best in the nation.

    Additionally, his 2,060 all-purpose yards was the second-most in school history.

    Duke won ACC Overall and Offensive Rookie of the Year, was named an All-America kick returner and was selected a first-team All-ACC member.

Who He Is

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    Height: 5'9"

    Weight: 196 pounds

    Position: Running Back

    Year: Sophomore

    2013 Award Watch Lists: Maxwell Award, Doak Walker Award, Walter Camp Player of the Year, Paul Hornung Award

Why He Can Win It

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    Johnson put together an excellent 2012 campaign, but he—bear with me—could actually have had a better season. Absolutely, the 2,060 all-purpose yards was a phenomenal accomplishment, and the feat should not be overlooked at all.

    But Johnson's game log reveals a stunning fact.

    After his "Hey guys, I'm here!" moment against Boston College, Johnson managed 320 yards over the next seven games, or just 45.7 yards per contest. This stretch included Kansas State (19 yards), North Carolina State (39), Notre Dame (22) and Florida State (27).

    Granted, Johnson was not receiving anywhere near a full complement of carries.

    But that's the point.

    In a limited role (139 carries), Johnson racked up 947 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns along with his 892 return yards and two scores. For comparison's sake, Georgia's starting running back, Todd Gurley, carried the ball 222 times, so Johnson is due many more carries andconsequently—more yards this season.

    Despite taking over the starting position for the 2013 season, he will continue to return kicks, according to his coach. Susan Miller Degnan of The Miami Herald notes Golden said, "For us to say we’re not going to have Randy return kicks, then he’s not Randy Johnson."

    Additionally, Miami's top six offensive linemen from a season ago will once again lead the way for the backfield. Miami averaged a simply mediocre 144.8 rushing yards per game in 2012, but Johnson will help raise that number this year.

    Between Duke's production at running back and as a returner, he can make a serious run, behind the Hurricanes' massive offensive line, at the Heisman.

    Read more here: http://miamiherald.typepad.com/umiami/#storylink=cpy

Biggest Obstacle

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    Johnson's talent is undeniable, but his durability raises a few questions.

    In 2012, Duke dealt with turf toe before suffering a sprained ankle, and both injuries affected his production. The four-game midseason lull paralleled Johnson's bumps and bruises, and the Miami offense missed Duke's explosive plays.

    So, as the starting running back this season, can he stay healthy for the entire year?

    Johnson bulked up in preparation for the increased workload, and the Hurricanes are expecting Duke to be a huge part of the offensive attack.

    He looks the part right now, but Duke must be able keep himself on the field and continue to be a game-changing player.

Key Games

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    September 7: Florida Gators

    After the season-opener against Florida Atlantic, Johnson and the 'Canes will face the Florida Gators—one of 2013's two toughest opponents.

    In 2012, the Gators allowed the fourth-fewest rushing yards per game, and despite losing a handful of defenders to the NFL, Florida is expected to tout another top-notch defense.

    Remembering how disappointing Duke's stats were against the 'Canes best competition last season, it is important for Johnson to kick off 2013 with more production against a highly ranked team.

    TV Note: This game can be seen at 12 noon ET (ESPN).


    November 2: Florida State Seminoles

    Last year, Duke attempted to battle through a turf toe injury when the 'Canes matched up with the Seminoles. Regardless of the injury, however, Florida State shut down Johnson, limiting him to just 27 yards on nine carries and a long run of four yards.

    But in 2013, the sophomore will be a focal point of the offense and demand even more attention from the Seminoles.

    The question remains, though, can Duke put up numbers against a top defense?

    If Johnson has any Heisman hopes, he must find some holes in the vaunted Florida State defense.


    November 29: Pittsburgh Panthers

    According to Susan Miller Degnan of The Miami Herald, Duke feels "more powerful" with the eight pounds he gained during the offseason.

    Heading into the final game of the regular season, it will be Johnson's time to prove his durability.

    Heinz Field in late November? It's gonna be cold, y'all.

    Duke's number will be called early and often as the 'Canes will certainly attempt to establish the ground game in Pittsburgh.

    TV Note: This game can be seen on the ESPN family of networks, time TBD.

What I Love About Him

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    Duke Johnson is that kid on your street who is just better than pretty much everyone, but he doesn't say much. You also want him on your team, because Duke is really, really hard to tackle.

    He's not unstoppable, but Johnson is the best player on Miami's team.

    But you won't hear him say it.

    Duke seems to carry himself in a team-first fashion, and the Hurricanes preach how the team is family. He always tries to put his 'Canes offense in the best position to score, and he does not care if he, personally, is the one to put six points on the board.

    Of course, I like his talent, too.

    Johnson is very quick and elusive, but his vision is remarkable. He uses this awareness on cutbacks and side-steps—his bread-and-butter moves.

    Duke was not an overly physical player as a true freshman, but he will be running between the tackles more often this season. Johnson certainly did not shy away from contact, though, and his stiff arm greatly improved during the year.

    Overall, the sophomore has loads of talent, and Duke is not someone who will disrupt team chemistry.

What Others Are Saying

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    With the talent Johnson has, it comes as no surprise that coaches, media and other players have high praise for the sophomore back.

    Al Golden via Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press:

    He's motivated to be the best. He's improved his conditioning. He's improved his size. Physically, he looks different. I think he's more mature. He should play with a quiet mind because he's learned everything. He's learned all the pickups. He's learned the routes. He's learned everything in the backfield...I think that's going to help him play faster. He's got a great toolbox already.

    Greg Cote of The Miami Herald:

    "Johnson is only 5'9" but his speed, ability to change direction and balance make his stature irrelevant."

    Middle linebacker Jimmy Gaines via Matt Porter of the Palm Beach Post:

    "Duke is Duke. If he thinks he’s hard to tackle, well, he’s always hard to tackle."

    ead more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/08/10/3553344/greg-cote-miami-hurricanes-dynamic.html#storylink=cS

Stat Predictions for This Season

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    Johnson will handle more than 200 carries this year, and the sophomore sensation will run for 1,275 yards and 15 touchdowns. As discussed earlier, Duke will also be returning kicks, and he will add 650 yards and one touchdown on special teams.

    I expect more swing and screen passes from the Miami offense, and Johnson will eclipse the 300-yard receiving mark, too.

    Plus, the 'Canes will, more than likely, finally be participating in the postseason, so Duke will have an additional game (or two) to reach Willis McGahee's single-season all-purpose yardage record (2,108 yards set in 2002).

Predicted Heisman Finish

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    Barring injury, Johnson seems destined to have another great season.

    McGahee's all-purpose yardage record was in Duke's sight last year, and Johnson has a real shot at shattering the mark during the 2013 campaign.

    But even if Duke does that, the Heisman Trophy is a long shot for the sophomore. Stephen Morris likely will have a better statistical season because of how effective Johnson is, meaning that Duke's success will open up the passing game.

    When asked if he ever looks at the pair of Heisman Trophies won by former Miami quarterbacks Vinny Testaverde and Gino Torretta, Duke responded that he never looks at the Heisman awards and instead looks at the national championship trophies.

    The 'Canes are looking to return to the national title discussion, and Duke Johnson could be the player to lead them there soon.