Duke Johnson ready to face his NFL doubters

Duke Johnson is tired of hearing concerns about his durability.

The all-time leading rusher in the history of the Miami Hurricanes, Johnson has repeatedly had to answer questions about whether he can hold up in the NFL despite missing just the final five games of his junior season because of injury.

“I think it’s a joke,” Johnson told the Observer on Monday in a phone interview. “I had a freak injury. I broke my ankle once, and that was the only time I missed a game. That was an accident that could have happened to anybody.

“I don’t see the durability thing. Somebody will always have something to say.”

At 5-foot-9 and 207 pounds, Johnson is an undersized running back by NFL standards. If he were an every-down back, there would be concerns on how many hits he could withstand.

He was able to play through injuries and migraines – which he’s suffered since he was a kid – to rush for 1,652 yards in 2014.

“I didn’t have an injury that caused me to miss a game last year,” Johnson said. “I think that goes to show that it’s not a durability thing. It was a freak accident. If I am hurt and can play, I will play.”

Johnson met with 22 teams at last month’s scouting combine, including a quick meeting with the Panthers, who have Jonathan Stewart and Fozzy Whittaker under contract for next season. He and his representation won’t begin visiting teams until after Miami’s April 1 pro day.

Johnson is his school’s leading rusher with 3,519 career yards, more than Clinton Portis, Edgerrin James or Frank Gore. He did it in three seasons before deciding to forgo his final year and enter the draft.

Johnson said he’s noticed the devaluation of running backs in recent drafts, and after a solid junior year he felt the time was right.

Former Georgia running back Todd Gurley and Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon are firmly the top two rushers in this year’s draft. Johnson is competing with Boise State’s Jay Ajayi, Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon and Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah for the No. 3 spot.

The third running back taken will likely go in the second round. The first running back taken in the 2014 draft was selected late in the second round.

Though he disappointed himself by running a 4.54-second 40-yard dash at last month’s combine, Johnson still has good football speed that allows him to outrace defenders. His ability to run between the tackles isn’t as good as his zone running skills, but he likely wouldn’t be asked to do that in the NFL.

He needs to improve his pass protection, and has tried to work on his base and hand placement when blitzers come. He has ability as a receiver out of the backfield – he had 69 catches for 719 yards in his career.

“I think my game translates because I’m versatile,” Johnson said. “It’s a passing league. I’m able to create mismatches in the slot and out of the backfield to help my team move the ball and put points on the board.”

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