Duke Johnson carries bigger load for Miami

Duke Johnson worked long hours in the summer heat to do what he did Saturday against Wake Forest.

With the game on the line, in the fourth quarter, Miami's sophomore running back was tough enough and strong enough to put the team on his back. Last season? That would not have been the case.

Indeed, more impressive than his two fourth-quarter touchdown runs was the way he ran in that final period. Johnson finished with a career-high 30 carries for 168 yards in the 24-21 win. In the fourth quarter alone, Johnson had 14 of the team’s 18 carries for 85 yards -- and saved the game.

Those two stats alone underscore just how different Johnson is in 2013, compared to the last time Miami and Florida State played, a year ago.

"This time last year I was banged up a lot, ankle injuries and toe injuries to where I couldn’t provide the best for the team," Johnson said on a teleconference with reporters. "Now, I’m bigger and stronger than I was last year so I’m able to take the pounding I couldn’t last year.

"It feels good knowing moments like I had last game was what I prepared for the whole offseason, what I trained so hard for and worked so hard for, situations like that."

Johnson and the Miami run game have been the most consistent part of the Canes' offense so far this season, and the past two games provide the perfect example. While quarterback Stephen Morris has struggled because of a lingering ankle injury, Miami has been able to turn to its run game in the pair of victories.

In a come-from-behind win over North Carolina, it was Dallas Crawford who shouldered the rushing load with Johnson out because of a head injury. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Miami has averaged 99.5 yards rushing in the fourth quarter in its past two games, compared to 117.5 yards in the first three quarters combined.

Having good running backs helps. As Morris said afterward, “Duke did Duke. He ran.” But having a veteran offensive line that has risen to the occasion at the end of games is a big help, too. Johnson said the linemen have asked the coaches to let them help win the game.

“I see a toughness,” Johnson said. “The guys are asking to run the ball, telling coaches to trust them, that they’re going to get us where we need to go, and telling me to run right behind them, that they’ve got me. There’s a lot of trust. They haven’t proven us wrong yet.”

That toughness is something Florida State will have to deal with right from the start. Miami ranks No. 2 in the ACC in rushing, just a tick ahead of Florida State. Power offenses like the one Miami presents have provided the biggest challenges to this Florida State defense so far this season. Boston College, for example, ran for a season-high 200 yards rushing on the Seminoles behind ACC leading rusher Andre Williams.

Johnson ranks right behind Williams in the ACC rushing stats. Miami is not afraid to line up and run it down the opposition’s throats, and that is one aspect Miami brings into this game that Clemson, for example, does not.

Everything starts with Johnson, of course. As a backup last year to Mike James, Johnson never carried the ball more than 16 times in one game. This year as the featured back, he has 19 or more carries in four games. In the two games he did not hit double-digit carries, he left early with injury.

Coach Al Golden promised that Miami would get much more out of Johnson, and he has been true to his word. Johnson has 122 carries in seven games, compared to 139 carries all of last season.

“How about his conditioning?” Golden said after the victory over the Demon Deacons. “What tremendous conditioning. He gets knocked out of the game last week [against North Carolina] and this week he is lowering the pads all day, second and third effort. What can you say about the effort that he gave?”

The effort has been there. And when Johnson does get his hands on the ball, he is hard to bring down.

Johnson is averaging 6.78 yards per carry in his career. If that holds, the per-carry average would rank as the seventh-best in ACC history. He also ranks No. 3 nationally in all-purpose yardage, with 182.9 yards per game. That is 11 yards more per game than a season ago.

There is little doubt Johnson has improved from a phenomenal freshman season. He gets another chance to prove how much he has grown come Saturday.