The running game will be more diverse, dependable, and capable of big plays.
This assumes the natural maturation of second-year backs Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West, and an immediate breakout season from rookie third-round pick Duke Johnson.
The Duke: While the revamped passing game of new coordinator John DeFilippo has been less than scintillating in OTA sessions open to media scrutiny, the running game has been a source of optimism.
Part of that optimism is due to the fact that there is no hitting at this early time of the new season, which allows almost every running play to work just as it’s been drawn up in the playbook, without stops and fumbles.
Also, the multi-faceted skill set of Johnson, the third-round pick from University of Miami, has been evident.
After a particularly good day in OTAs last week, coach Mike Pettine said of Johnson, “I think we’ve all seen what he can bring – the explosiveness and how we can turn a handoff or a short pass into a significant gain with a back like that.”
At the organization’s first tub-thumping Fan Fest last weekend, Farmer said Johnson has “playmaking ability and supreme confidence. I think he is going to be tremendous for us.”
Besides a proven record as a plant foot-and-go runner at Miami, Johnson brings the ability to run a route, catch a pass and turn it upfield. Neither Crowell nor West did that last year. Throwing to the backs has been a recognizable addition to the offense in OTAs.
“I definitely do think it creates an opportunity (for me),” Johnson said last week. “I think that’s why they brought me in. I’m kind of a change-of-pace back that can kind of line up anywhere and run things that maybe most running backs can’t. I’m looking forward to seeing just the different ways we use me on offense. If it’s from receiver, routes out of the backfield … whatever it takes, I’m all in.”
The trivia answer: One thing I like about Johnson is his humble take on his place in The U’s totem pole of outstanding running backs.
Johnson’s 3,519 rushing yards are the most in the glorious running back history of the Hurricanes.
This is a college program that has produced noteworthy backs such as Chuck Foreman, Ottis Anderson, Melvin Bratton, Alonzo Highsmith, Edgerrin James, Willis McGahee, Clinton Portis, Stephen McGuire, James Jackson, Lamar Miller and Frank Gore. And Johnson out-produced them in essentially 2 ½ seasons because he left early and one of his seasons was shortened by a broken ankle.
When I mentioned to Johnson that he could stump trivia buffs with his place at the top of UM’s rushing annals, he didn’t disagree. He also struck the right tones about his Miami career.
“Yeah, from the outside looking in, I probably wouldn’t guess me, either,” Johnson said. “Just because what those guys were able to do as far as wins, and I guess the way they were able to do it, that’s why those names will always be at the top of my list.”
Asked whom he puts on the top of his list, Johnson wouldn’t name his favorite.
“Just for the record, in my book I’m not at the top,” Johnson said. “I’ll probably be fifth, sixth. I’ll probably be toward the middle bottom. I won’t be one.
“I still haven’t done anything close to what those guys were able to do, as far as winning.”
It’s good to hear a Browns running back be humble and realistic. They just may have found their most impactful new player on offense. Then again, we can’t say for sure until we see Johnson absorb a hit, break or miss real tackles, and catch a pass with a linebacker storming in on him.