'The Duke' soon might be king of Browns backfield

Duke Johnson forgot himself for a moment.

As the temperature at rookie minicamp reached about 212 degrees, he chopped through a drill in which running backs step through a stringed contraption while carrying a football weighted like a medicine ball.

Coach Wilbert Montgomery told his backs to take a water break. When Johnson dropped his ball and stepped toward refreshment, Montgomery barked, “Don’t drop the ball, Duke! Never put the ball on the ground!”

The coach was grinning, but serious.

“The football is your girlfriend,” he told Johnson. “It could be your wife. You’re marrying your work.”

Johnson immediately picked up the ball, which is the official ball of the NFL, a Wilson. The particular make, stamped right on the ball, is “The Duke.”

When the final running back depth chart of the preseason is stamped out, there is a good chance Duke Johnson will be “The Man.”

Johnson is not a normal 77th overall draft pick.

He has a real chance to start right away, competing against 2014 rookies Terrance West, who was a No. 94 overall draft pick, and Isaiah Crowell, who was undrafted.

West and Crowell boast NFL experience that includes some bright moments from 2014. Their college experience, with West putting up big numbers at Towson and Crowell finishing at Alabama State (having been an SEC freshman of the year), doesn’t compare to Johnson’s.

Johnson was an 18-year-old freshman when he played his first college game and in three years became the Miami Hurricanes’ career rushing leader.

He already was full of confidence by the end of his freshman season, which produced one of his favorite games. Facing Virginia, he threw a halfback option pass for a touchdown and returned a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter. Sharing the running load with two backs who totaled 83 yards on 17 carries, Johnson squeezed 150 yards out of 16 carries. He also was used as a receiver.

“I thought I showed everything I can do in that game,” he said.

As a senior, his overall production (242 carries for 1,631 yards at 6.8 per carry; 38 catches for 421 yards) compared to that of Ohio State’s Ezekial Elliott (273 carries for 1,878 yards at 6.9 per carry; 28 catches for 220 yards).

One limitation is size, reflected in the fact his 10 rushing touchdowns in 2014 were the lowest total among BCS players who finished in the top 14 in rushing yards.
General manager Ray Farmer protests that the 5-foot-9 Johnson “isn’t small … he weighs 207 pounds.”

Still, he’s way lighter than Crowell and noticeably lighter than West.

“I’ve been competing against the big dogs since I was playing football,” Johnson said after a muggy practice. “I’ve never been the biggest. Sometimes I was the smallest. It never stopped me. I’m not gonna allow it to now.”

The backs drafted ahead of Johnson were Georgia’s Todd Gurley (6-1, 222), Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon (6-1, 215), Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon (6-1, 226), Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah (5-9, 205) and Indiana’s Trevin Coleman (5-11, 206).

Farmer calls Johnson “a dynamic player who can run, catch, return kicks and catch punts.

“He has a complete skill set. We love that he’s quick, agile and well balanced. He runs through trash. He can jump over guys on the ground, land and cut.

“He’s got some Giovanni Bernard to him … some Brian Westbrook.”

Bernard plays for the Bengals. Tom Heckert regards Westbrook as his best value pick during his days as the Eagles’ general manager. Westbrook was a No. 91 overall pick in 2002. On Philadelphia’s 2004 Super Bowl team, Westbrook averaged 4.6 yards on 177 rushes and 9.6 yards on 73 catches.

Head coach Mike Pettine talks as if the different looks presented by Johnson and Crowell all have a place.

“You want to be able to match up differently different weeks,” Pettine said. “Some weeks, it might be a good matchup for Terrance, others for Crow. And now Duke kind of gives us that added element.

“You don’t want to use the label ‘third-down back.’ ”

Bookmakers have an inkling Johnson might help the Browns right away.

Odds against him being NFL offensive rookie of the year aren’t terribly long, at 25-1. Marcus Mariota, to name one of the 13 players with shorter odds than Johnson, is 10-1.

The Browns have had ex-Hurricanes in their backfield before.

James Jackson was drafted 12 spots higher than Johnson, at No. 65 overall, in 2001. He didn’t work out. Willis McGahee was the emergency replacement after Trent Richardson was traded in 2013. He was too old.

Jackson and McGahee had past ties to their Browns head coaches, Butch Davis and Rob Chudzinski.

Johnson arrives fresh and agenda free, drafted simply because Browns scouts and coaches think he can inject serious juice into the offense.

The former Miami back with whom Johnson has had his most serious talks since the draft is Edgerrin James, a candidate for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
James’ advice to Johnson was very simple: “Take coaching. Be on time.”

Johnson soon will be going through the Browns’ spring program in competition with West and Crowell. He talked to West after the draft.

“I haven’t gotten any bad vibes from Terrance or anything,” Johnson said. “Just like me, he’s ready to compete and fight for the starting job. About me getting drafted, he said, ‘Congratulations. The offense just got better.’ ”

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