The sports world loves "next" comparisons. In the modern era, today's players rarely get to stand on their own merit, often measured up by yesterday's greats.
Hurricanes running back Duke Johnson and former Miami standout Edgerrin James are impossible to compare. Opposite running styles and completely different physiques and each unique in their own right.
Where they've proven alike—a desire to ignore the critics, think long-term, set trends and to eventually lead by example.
James and Johnson are players from different eras, but each made their way to Miami when "The U" wasn't the popular choice. In both cases, traditional state powers had overshadowed the Hurricanes, the dark cloud of the NCAA hovered and UM had lost its national luster.
Still, neither was swayed by Miami's lack of sizzle, bought into what perspective head coaches were selling and each wanted to be an integral part of the Hurricanes' return to glory.
It takes a special player to ignore the criticism, negative recruiting and pulls in multiple directions. Both James and Johnson proved wise beyond their 18 years when setting their sights on Miami.
James arrived in Coral Gables by way of nearby Immokalee in fall of 1996. Butch Davis just wrapped up his first season at Miami, where severe NCAA punishment was recently handed down. The Hurricanes were stripped of 31 scholarships over a four-year span and earned a one-year postseason ban in 1995.
The highly touted running back was a Parade All-American, first-team All-State selection and district MVP. An elbow injury shortened James' senior season to five games, yet he still ran for 1,252 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Despite having offers from Florida State, Florida and Penn State—all which were in much better shape at the time—James chose "The U" and proved to be the cornerstone of Miami's 13-player class.
Over the next few years, despite scholarships limitations and hovering probation, Davis was able to recruit strong as James' buy-in opened the floodgates.
A year later, players like Najeh Davenport, Kenny Kelly, Dan Morgan, Ed Reed and Reggie Wayne got on board. The next class brought William Joseph, Mike Rumph, Ethnic Sands, Leonard Myers and Matt Walters to Coral Gables.
James turned pro after the 1998 season—fueled by a 299-yard performance in an upset over No. 2 UCLA—and two months later, Davis signed a class that shaped the next half decade of Miami football.
The Hurricanes' 1999 recruits included Philip Buchanon, Ken Dorsey, Vernon Carey, Jason Geathers, Andre Johnson, Bryant McKinnie, Jarrett Payton, Clinton Portis and Maurice Sikes. That 2002 senior class went 44-6 overall, earned three BCS berths, played in two national championship games and won one title.
James' three-season career wrapped 23-12, having fueled Miami comeback, but the first-round pick didn't reap the rewards as overall talent level didn't fully catch up during his era.
Johnson's story shares many similarities—most notably the impact on recruiting after boldly pledging his allegiance to "The U"—in early September of his junior season, becoming an ambassador for the program, no less.
Over the next 17 months, Randy Shannon was fired, Al Golden was hired, Nevin Shaprio became a household name and the NCAA descended upon Coral Gables—yet nothing changed for the 5-star running back. After Johnson stuck, other local superstars felt fully comfortable getting on board.
Deon Bush committed in January at the Army All-American Bowl, choosing Miami over Alabama and Auburn, as did defensive end Tyriq McCord, moments later also on national television. Both were highly-coveted 4-star prospects.
On signing day, a last-minute pick-up when 5-star cornerback Tracy Howard dropped Florida and went with Miami. Going the way of Johnson, Bush and McCord, Howard also believed that Golden was building something special, despite the swirling outside negativity. The Hurricanes also picked up 4-star wide receiver Malcolm Lewis and 4-star defensive end Jelani Hamilton in 2012.
Last February, it was 4-star cornerback Artie Burns, 4-star safety Jamal Carter, 4-star quarterback Kevin Olsen and 4-star wide receiver Stacy Coley, who spurned Florida State last minute, choosing to stay home. Local 4-star linebacker Jermaine Grace was another last-minute signing day nab.
Recruiting remains on a roll with the 2014 class sitting at 29 verbal commitments, loaded with talent and a slew of playmakers who believe Miami is an "it" school again.
James made a bold choice in the mid-90s, put Miami back on the map and started a revolution before going on to NFL greatness.
A decade-and-a-half later, the Johnson effect sparked something special and has Miami in position to go on another tear.
Follow Chris Bello on Twitter @allCanesBlog.
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