The University of Miami has a storied tradition of producing great running backs. Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, and Willis McGahee all starred for the Hurricanes.
But none of these players hold the school's career rushing record. That distinction is held by Duke Johnson.
The Browns used a third round draft pick in this year's draft to acquire the 5'9, 207 pound running back. Scouting reports shower Johnson with praise, but is the Miami, Florida native the real deal?
To find out, we connected with Jerry Steinberg of SB Nation's UM site, State of The U.
Full Q & A below:
DBN: If you had to pick three words to describe Duke Johnson's career in Miami, what words would you choose, and why?
SOTU: Heart, Class, Disappointment. Heart because for three years the way Duke played the game was a joy to watch. From the first time he stepped on the field his freshman season at BC (and broke off two long, spectacular TD runs) to his final game at UM in the Duck Commander Bowl vs. South Carolina, he left it all on the field. Johnson plays the game with tremendous passion. His speed, cuts, and power are only matched by his never say die attitude on each and every play he participates. Class because of how he handles himself off the field. Johnson never moped about lack of team success. He genuinely cares about people off the field (see the Carter Hucks story). And the few times I had the privilege to interview him, he was a polite and humble young man. I can see him being a big part of the community in Cleveland. Disappointment due to the fact that despite being one of the best players in the program's recent memory, he never played for a team that achieved a signature season (or win for that matter). The Hurricanes program is a proud and storied one, and it is a shame one of its best all around players played in an era where the 'Canes have been so mediocre.
DBN: Johnson finished his Miami career as the school's all-time leading rusher. Is he the best Hurricanes running back you've ever watched?
SOTU: I would put him top 4. It's not that he wasn't incredible, but some seriously great backs went to Miami. For me #1 is still Edgerrin James. James' combination of size, speed, and pass catching is tough to match. Though he only starred for one season at UM, Willis McGahee is #2 in my opinion. Before suffering that devastating injury in the 2003 Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, McGahee was simply put, ridiculous. He should have won the 2002 Heisman by a landslide. Prior to the injury he was going to be an Adrian Peterson type talent. It is a testament to his determination that McGahee still went on to have a pretty good NFL career. In the third spot, I'd put Duke and Clinton Ports at a tie. Portis played behind one of the best O lines in college football history, but that still doesn't diminish how great he was for the "Best College Football Team" ever (01 'Canes). But Johnson's career was right there with some of the best in school history.
DBN: Injuries seemed to haunt Johnson often during his Miami career. How durable is Johnson?
SOTU: This is a major concern no doubt. Johnson missed the a good chunk of his sophomore season with a broken ankle. Earlier that year, he also had a concussion. In his junior campaign, he missed no time with injury, but was banged up during games on more than a few occasions. Almost all of the times he was shaken up it was because he took an extra hit, fighting for additional yards. And you really don't want to take that aspect of his game away, but it does leave him open to a lot of punishment. If there is one thing I can see that can prevent Duke from a very successful NFL career, durability is it.
DBN: Some draftniks, particularly NFL.com's Lance Zierlein, have criticized Johnson for his lack of vision between the tackles. Will this be a problem for Johnson in the NFL?
SOTU: That is a tough one for me to figure out. From what I saw, Johnson was equally adept between the tackles as he was running to the outside throughout his career in Coral Gables. He has a nice jump cut, that allows him to break long runs when he sees a hole on the backside. If you go back and watch his dominating performance vs. Virginia Tech this past season, almost all of his damage done on the ground, was between the tackles. Johnson also displays good patience, and a lot of his best runs were when he allowed the play to develop, made a read, and hit the hole hard.
DBN: Much has been said about Duke's pass catching ability. How reliable of a receiver was Johnson at Miami?
SOTU: This is a very interesting subject. His first two years with the Hurricanes, it was a very underutilized aspect of his game. Then all of a sudden this past year, he was a huge part of the passing game. Johnson is a natural for screens and passes out in the flat, because more often than not he will make the first man miss. But in 2014 he also ran some wheel routes, bubble screens, and some routes over the middle that helped his freshman QB (Brad Kaaya) move the chains. I have no doubt he will be very valuable to whomever is the starting QB this season for the Browns as both a check down and occasional primary target.
DBN: The Browns expect Johnson to contribute on special teams as a return man. Can Johnson fulfill this role while also serving as a weapon on offense?
SOTU: Duke Johnson was one of the best return men in the country as a freshman at Miami, so certainly the ability is there. His speed, burst, and vision make him extremely dangerous as a kick returner. But as his career progressed, he was used less and less in this capacity at UM, in an effort to keep him healthy. Depending on how big a part of the Cleveland's offense he is, I could see the same type scenario playing out with the Browns. If he is #3 on the depth chart at RB, Mike Pettine and Co. are probably going to use him in the return game to get him touches. If he develops into their best option at RB, there's a good chance they take him off the return team to keep him healthy.