BEREA, Ohio -- The list of talented running backs produced by the University of Miami seems endless.
It goes all the way back to Chuck Foreman and Ottis Anderson in the 1970s. It continued with Melvin Bratton and Alonzo Highsmith in the 80s. After that came Edgerrin James, Willis McGahee, Clinton Portis, Stephen McGuire, James Jackson, Lamar Miller and Frank Gore. It’s a list so long that one year ago NFL.com determined the University of Miami had earned the title “Running Back U.”
The guy who gained more yards than any of them is running around in Berea, practicing with the Cleveland Browns after being the team’s third-round draft pick. Duke Johnson's 3,519 rushing yards are the most in Hurricanes history.
That’s just one of many impressive numbers Johnson put up in his time at Miami.
As a freshman, he had 947 yards rushing, 221 receiving and he threw a touchdown pass and returned two kicks for touchdowns. He played just eight games his second season due to a broken ankle, but he still gained 920 yards rushing. In his final season, he ran for 1,652 yards and had 10 touchdowns.
Numbers have been his thing. He ran for 1,540 yards as a sophomore at Miami Norland high school. His senior year he had 1,957 yards rushing, with three kickoff returns and one punt return for touchdowns.
Oh, he also ran track.
But when it comes to ranking himself among the all-time UM backs, Johnson shrugs and admits that if there were a question on Trivial Pursuit asking who leads UM in all-time rushing, “I probably wouldn’t guess me either.”
“Just because of what those guys were able to do with wins,” he said.
Many of the Hurricanes' great backs played in an era of Miami greatness. After Howard Schnellengerger and Bernie Kosar won the national title after the 1983 season, Miami went on a streak of success that’s hard to grasp. From 1985-94, Miami never lost more than two games in a season. In six of those seasons, the Hurricanes finished first, second or third in the national rankings. The Hurricanes won five national titles between 1984-2001.
But in Johnson’s three seasons, Miami lost 16 games -- or as many as it lost in all of the seasons from 1985 through 1995.
When it was pointed out the record book showed Johnson at the top of the Miami running back list, Johnson asked what book that was. He nodded and credited the entire team for his yards, but added: “Just for the record, in my book I’m not at the top.”
Who would be?
“Now that one’s tough,” he said. “It’s a list, but I won’t be at the top. 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,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s talent is evident in the numbers he’s produced as well as the fact that he brings elements that the Browns' offense lacks. Specifically speed, quickness, the ability to break a big play and the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
“I’m that kind of change-of-pace back that can line up anywhere and do things that most running backs can’t,” he said.
Johnson has his share of Hurricanes swagger. No Miami player lacks it. But he carries his with a healthy dose of reality. He accepts where he is in the UM hierarchy, and understands he's not higher because his teams lacked in the most important number.
That being said, he has looked good running and catching the ball for the Browns in OTAs. He’s worked on the kickoff return unit. And he said he’s also working on catching punts, and is willing to do it if asked.
“Whatever it takes,” Johnson said. “I’m all-in.”