Miami running back Duke Johnson suffered a season-ending broken ankle last weekend against Florida State. The injury had little impact on an already out-of-control loss to the Seminoles. On a grander scale, Johnson's absence has the potential to derail what's been a promising season for the Hurricanes thus far.
Johnson had been a workhorse since September, starting off with a 186-yard performance against Florida Atlantic. Held in check by No. 12 Florida and injured against both Savannah State and South Florida, the sophomore finally returned full throttle against Georgia Tech, exploding for 184 yards.
Injury struck again, this time at North Carolina, forcing Dallas Crawford to carry the load in the comeback victory. Cleared to play a week later, Johnson churned out 168 yards against Wake Forest, highlighted by two fourth-quarter touchdowns in the late-game win.
Johnson rushed for 97 yards against the Seminoles before going down, bringing his eight-game total to 920 yards on 145 attempts. Last year as a true freshman, he rushed for 947 yards on 139 carries in 12 games.
The loss of Johnson might not be so detrimental if quarterback play was more reliable.
Fresh off an impressive junior campaign, Stephen Morris was expected to take another step forward in 2013. Instead, eight interceptions over the past four games has caused concern— especially with a stout Virginia Tech defense ready to create havoc this Saturday night in Miami Gardens.
Morris' timing has been off with receivers, while a nagging ankle injury has kept No. 17 from being able to plant his back foot or step into throws, resulting in errant passes. With Morris noticeably off, first-year offensive coordinator James Coley has leaned heavily on his running backs.
Trailing North Carolina 23-13 early in the fourth quarter, Coley called 19 running plays compared to six passes from that point on. Against Wake Forest two weeks ago, the Hurricanes offense had 16 runs and only three pass attempts on Miami's two final touchdown drives.
Down 14-10 in the fourth quarter to the Demon Deacons and the Hurricanes needing an answer, Johnson told head coach Al Golden to put the game on his shoulders.
"I wanted the ball," Johnson said. "So I went to coach, and we talked about it, and coach said 'We're going to put it in your hands.'"
Who will step up for Miami in Johnson's absence, and whose hands will the ball be in with four regular-season games remaining and UM's best player shelved until next spring?
The entire Hurricanes offense takes a step back without the explosive Johnson, forcing Coley and Golden to reevaluate the current run-first offensive philosophy in place as Morris struggles.
Crawford showed his tough-running ability against the Tar Heels and can keep the offense moving effectively, but who will step up behind him and take over the sophomore's vacated second-string role?
Golden told Christy Cabrera Chirinos at the Sun Sentinel that things are wide open and all running backs should see action against the Hokies:
Dallas is the No. 1 right now. We’re going to keep evaluating them every day and see who’s earned what reps in the game and go from there. We’ll look at the tape today and we’ll look at it again tomorrow and we’ll assign the reps accordingly. I have no doubt that Dallas can handle the load as we all witnessed. They’re all competing every day. Every one of those guys is competing for reps every day as is Walter Tucker.
Outside of Tucker, Miami boasts senior Eduardo Clements and true freshman Gus Edwards. Clements is a tough runner like Crawford, while Edwards has shown explosiveness against inferior competition.
Edwards earned one lone carry since ACC play got underway, underlining the fact that coaches haven't deemed him ready—until Johnson was injured. Meanwhile, Clements is battling back from a neck injury that almost ended his career. Both are capable, but neither are Duke Johnson, causing understandable concern with a division title at stake.
While Miami needs a collective effort from all four running backs, this is also a time to lean on the veteran quarterback, errant as he's been.
Despite all of Morris' struggles, the senior has to let it rip and get his groove back if the Hurricanes are going to stay on track in the Coastal Division. Beneath the ankle injury and troubled season is a quarterback who threw for 3,345 yards last season with 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Miami boasts a stable of talented wide receivers and with defenses keying in on an inexperienced ground attack, it opens things up for Morris and the passing game. The Hurricanes saw this late against the Tar Heels with Morris completing key passes to Allen Hurns and Herb Waters. That kept the drive alive as North Carolina sold out to defend against the run.
Part of learning how to win is showing character in regards to setbacks and adversity. Miami was hit with a double whammy, falling to Florida State and losing Johnson for the year.
Will that break a team that rode a nine-game win streak and No. 7 ranking in Tallahassee? Or will this new-look Miami program continue overachieving and find a way to beat the odds?
Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog