Miami Football: What Duke Johnson's Injury Means for Canes' ACC Title Game Hopes

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistNovember 3, 2013

Sophomore running back Duke Johnson had been carving up defenses during the Miami Hurricanes' surprising 7-0 start.

Averaging 117.6 yards per game, Duke was expected to help keep the 'Canes competitive against the third-ranked Florida State Seminoles—and he did.

Johnson had already tallied 96 yards as time was running out on the third quarter.

But his 97th and final yard flipped Miami's bid for its first-ever appearance in the ACC Championship Game on its head.

Replays showed how the star running back was crunched beneath a few players, but one could only speculate as to the severity of Duke's injury.

Early Sunday morning, Susan Miller Degnan of The Miami Herald first reported the news Hurricanes coaches, players and fans feared the most.

The impact of Johnson's absence cannot be understated as it concerns this Miami team.

Just this season, Duke set a career high for single-game yards, sealed an upset win over No. 12 Florida, carried the load (career-high 32 attempts) and scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns against Wake Forest to save the Hurricanes' undefeated record.

Add wide receiver Phillip Dorsett's leg injury to the equation, though, and the 'Canes are without their two biggest explosive-play threats.

Johnson is an electric playmaker who finds something out of nothing, breaks long runs and returns kicks, but which player will step in to help lead Miami to a division title?

Dallas Crawford will take over the starting role in place of Duke, and the sophomore is certainly a capable short-term replacement.

Crawford carried Miami to victory against North Carolina, rushing for 137 yards and two touchdowns on 33 attempts. He also scored the game-winning touchdown with just 16 seconds remaining on the clock.

Interestingly enough, though, Crawford did not see a noticeable spike in his role following that breakout game. The Hurricanes coaching staff was fully content with letting Duke take a strong majority of the carries—and that's not a problem.

But as it worked out, Crawford has tallied just 12 touches over the last two contests. Moving forward, he will likely be called upon to carry the ball 18-plus times each game from now on.

Crawford is well rested, and so are his two immediate backups—but experience is an issue.

Senior Eduardo Clements has primarily been a special teams player, so he has just 76 career touches. Therefore, Clements is the most experienced, but he must find a rhythm as he has just three carries over the last five games.

Behind Clements, then, sits the powerful Gus Edwards. The true freshman had a 111-yard, three-touchdown performance against Savannah State, but he has taken just one meaningful carry this season.

Though true freshman Walter Tucker may also be mixed into the rotation as well, head coach Al Golden said Crawford and Edwards will play less special teams to prepare for a bigger offensive role.

Basically, Johnson has occupied such a large offensive role that that the reserve running backs do not have many in-game reps.

And since Miami's first opponent sans Duke will be a clash with the nation's No. 9 rush defense, the trio will be tested right away.

On the other hand, replacing Duke on kick returns will be less of an issue.

Are his backups of the same caliber? Not quite. But it's certainly not a dire situation.

True freshmen Stacy Coley and Artie Burns were back deep for the 'Canes against Florida State, anyway, and both players have six returns each.

Earlier this season, Coley took a kickoff to the house, and Burns—one of the nation's best hurdlers in high school—has plenty of speed to burn.

Other candidates include wide receiver Malcolm Lewis and defensive back Antonio Crawford, but expect the pair of true freshmen to handle return duties.

Ultimately, though losing Duke Johnson definitely hurts right now, Miami is far from dead in the Coastal Division.

In fact, the 'Canes are still in control.

Miami is the only team in the division with one conference loss, as the Hokies, Duke and Georgia Tech each have two losses. The Hurricanes hold a tiebreaker over the Yellow Jackets, but games against the Hokies and Blue Devils remain on the schedule.

Overall, a win over Virginia Tech this Saturday night is paramount for a Coastal championship; it is—and has been—the most important contest for "The U" in 2013.

Kicking off at 7:00 p.m. ET on ESPN, the Duke-less Miami team must take down the rival Hokies to stay atop the Coastal and hold the tiebreaker over Virginia Tech.

Without that win, however, the Hurricanes will be hoping for the Hokies to suffer another loss—simply a non-optimal scenario.

Following Miami's battle with Virginia Tech, the 'Canes final three opponents—Duke, Virginia and Pittsburgh—rank 70th, 85th and 65th against the run, respectively. If Crawford and Co. can help Miami topple the Hokies, the trio's road to the ACC Championship Game gets much easier.

Duke was expected to help carry the 'Canes to a division title, but his unfortunate injury does not doom the Hurricanes.

Crawford, Clements, Edwards, Coley and Burns will each attempt to provide Miami a spark with the ball in their respective hands. The first four players have done exactly that once or twice already, but now the spotlight is shining brightly.

Duke's absence will be noticeable, but it's time for the next man up to step up and keep the Hurricanes' ACC title hopes just as high as they were last week.


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