By Tim Linafelt
Seminoles.com Senior Writer
@Tim_Linafelt on Twitter
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Jimbo Fisher isn’t shy when talking about Miami running back Duke Johnson.
Johnson, Fisher says, is “as good as anybody we’ve played against.”
His numbers suggest that’s not just lip service.
A Miami born and bred junior, Johnson ranks among the nation’s Top 10 in rushing yards (1,213), yards per carry (7.7) and yards per game (134.8).
He’s got five straight 100-yard rushing games – a stretch highlighted by a 249-yard outburst at Virginia Tech two weeks ago – and has scored at least once in each of UM’s past nine contests.
Not even three years into his career, Johnson is already Miami’s career leader in all-purpose yards (4,939) and needs only 252 more yards to become the Hurricanes’ all-time leading rusher.
“He’s fast,” FSU defensive tackle Eddie Goldman said. “He has agility. He has great vision, I think, and he just has a way of finding the crease.”
Fisher said that Johnson’s combination of deceptive strength – he stands at just 5-9, 194 pounds –and top-end speed is what makes him so unique.
Johnson is similar in that regard, Fisher said, to former FSU running back and Miami native Devonta Freeman.
“Usually those little guys like that are quick but don’t have that unbelievable top-end speed,” Fisher said. “Once he gets in that green grass, you have a hard time catching him.
“He has as many long runs as anyone I’ve seen.”
Fisher is right — Johnson this season has posted runs of 90, 80 and 55 yards.
“You can put him in a class by himself,” said FSU defensive tackle and fellow Miami product Desmond Hollin. “Pretty explosive. Nice running back. Best running back we’ve played this year.”
And maybe the best running back they played last year, too.
Johnson roughed up FSU’s third-ranked run defense for 97 yards on 23 carries in last season’s meeting before breaking his ankle late in the fourth quarter.
He missed the rest of last season, but has shown no ill effects in his return.
The key to slowing Johnson down, then, may be to not let him get started in the first place.
And that, of course, starts up front. Florida State’s defensive linemen said there’s been a renewed emphasis in recent weeks on gap assignments and ensuring that Johnson doesn’t have any holes or cutback lanes to burst through.
“You have to strike blocks as they’re coming off the ball,” FSU defensive end Mario Edwards said. “Hit the opponents, don’t run sideways with them to create lanes. Hit them back.
“That’s going to make him where he doesn’t have a lane to cut off of and our backers can fill the gaps and we can flush them a little bit.”
That, as Johnson has showed often this season, can be easier said than done. And Edwards is aware of exactly what’s at stake on each play.
“Duke is just one of those backs that you really don’t see,” Edwards said. “He can make a cut or stop and then get back at full speed within two strides.
“Once he makes a cut and gets through the gap, you can pretty much kiss the baby.”