Miami running back Duke Johnson is one of the nation's best. The topic isn't even up for debate.
Ten touchdowns and 947 yards on the ground last season—a UM freshman record—Johnson exploded for two monster scores at Boston College in the 2012 opener and immediately became a household name.
As a result, the sophomore earned his place on four preseason watch lists and solidified himself as the heartbeat of the Hurricanes offense.
Four games into 2013, Johnson has proven that last season was no fluke. A 186-yard performance against Florida Atlantic led the nation. A week later, some clutch runs against No. 12 Florida helped Miami pull off the upset of a hated Sunshine State rival.
Since then, Johnson has been limited in his play due to lesser competition, but with Atlantic Coast Conference play kicking off this weekend against Georgia Tech, everything is setting up to again run through No. 8.
Because of Johnson's overall importance, the back saw limited action against Savannah State and South Florida. The running back carried six times on the Hurricanes' second drive against the Tigers, eventually punching in the two-yard score. That success on the heels of a game-opening 95-yard kickoff return, halted at the 4-yard line.
Johnson tore off a 43-yard run late first quarter, but after getting rattled a play later, coaches ended his night prematurely—and rightfully so.
In a recent win at South Florida, Johnson had another minimal drive-by performance.
Removed after the opening possession of the third quarter against the Bulls, Johnson ended his day with 84 yards, a touchdown, two fumbles and overcame what looked like an on-the-field concussion, dropping to his knees after attempting to walk off a big hit.
Miami is officially one-third through the 2013 season, and if "The Duke of Coral Gables" is going to stay healthy through December, the Hurricanes must spread the carries around, or Johnson is being set up to flame out down the stretch.
Weighing in at 196 pounds and standing 5'9", Johnson was never intended to be an every-down, power back at Miami. A season ago, the freshman brought some "lightning" to the "thunder" provided by then-senior Mike James. Two completely different runners, their styles complemented each other.
There were countless times Miami needed Johnson's game-breaking speed and elusiveness, but James' grit brought necessary balance to the Hurricanes ground attack.
Look no further than last year's comeback win against this week's foe, Georgia Tech, for proof.
Up 19-0 early, Miami fell into a 36-19 hole late third quarter last year and scrapped back into the game courtesy of some tough running by James, who punched in the game-winner from 25 yards out in overtime, a signature moment in the 42-36 win.
Later in the season, it was all Johnson. The freshman put up 100 yards against Virginia Tech, 150 at Virginia and 176 in the season finale at Duke.
Johnson's longest runs each game—a 65-yarder against the Hokies, a 52-yard sprint versus the Cavaliers and a 65-yard touchdown against the Blue Devils. There was also a 95-yard kickoff return for a score in that heartbreaking loss at Virginia.
Miami has forever been a program with tremendous running-back depth. At the turn of the century, the ground game was as impressive as any other aspect of a program that won 34 straight games and churned out 23 first-round NFL draft picks in a five-year span.
The 2001 Hurricanes are still regarded as one of—if not the best—college football team of all time. A big reason why? Depth, talent and diversity at running back.
Clinton Portis, a junior, got the majority of the carries that season, while true freshman Frank Gore began creating his storied legacy. Najeh Davenport was moved to fullback his senior year, and when he was injured for the Rose Bowl showdown against Nebraska, Willis McGahee took over and carried the load.
Miami doesn't boast that type of overall talent this season, but there are a handful of quality backs ready to step in and help Johnson carry the load.
Recruited as a cornerback in 2011, Dallas Crawford has moved over to running back as a result of his tremendous athleticism. The junior has seen action in three games this season, carried 20 times for 88 yards, scored five touchdowns and has proven impressive in short-yardage situations.
True freshman Gus Edwards is making his claim for No. 2, but consistency has been an issue. Size-wise, Edwards is ideal at 6'2" and 225 pounds, but goal-line situations have proven troublesome, and the first-year talent is still getting used to the college game.
Eduardo Clements returned this fall after a neck injury almost ended his career but has since been sidelined with a hamstring pull. As a result, coaches have decided to burn the redshirt on freshman Walter Tucker. The true freshman will assume Clements' role on special teams against Georgia Tech, while taking over as third-string running back as the Hurricanes need depth chart help.
Head coach Al Golden made it clear this week that short-yardage situations have been an issue four games into the season. As pointed out by the Miami Herald, the Hurricanes have only earned a first down five of 12 times they've had a third down with three yards or fewer in four games this year.
Miami doesn't have to solve all its issues overnight. Undefeated in October for the first time in 2004, the Hurricanes bought some breathing room with the upset over the Gators and look as good as they have in years.
Unranked to start the season, Miami enters this weekend No. 14 in the nation, and while Johnson can carry the load for the foreseeable future, the remaining eight games will need some positive reinforcement and a helping hand.
Crawford. Edwards. Tucker. A rejuvenated Clements. Whoever can step up, someone has to.
Two have always proven better than one at "The U" and with this much depth and talent, there are more than enough carries to spread around, as Miami continues its climb back to the top.
Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog
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