His Maryland teammates have learned that it’s a good idea to be friends with Ty Johnson.
An accomplished cook, Johnson likes to make meals for his fellow running backs and other players during the offseason. Steaks, pasta and even surf 'n' turf appear on his Friday night menus, which he likes to rotate to keep things fresh. He recently whipped up some filet mignon with stuffed green peppers, asparagus and steamed carrots.
There’s another thing that the Terrapins have learned about Johnson: It’s a really good idea to give him the football.
On the field, the junior is more flash fry than crock pot. He ran for 1,004 yards last season, which isn’t all that remarkable in a conference full of standout running backs. Until you consider that he accomplished that in just 110 carries. That equated to an average of 9.1 yards per carry, which was the highest rate in the FBS and a Maryland school record.
Johnson came close to the all-time NCAA record of 9.63 yards per carry, which Houston’s Chuck Weatherspoon set in 1998 on 119 attempts. Johnson cleared the 1,000-yard mark on his 107th carry of the season; for comparison’s sake, Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon crossed the 1,000-yard barrier in 104 attempts during his landmark 2014 season.
Then again, Gordon went on to 343 total carries while finishing second in the Heisman Trophy race that year. Johnson got less than a third of Gordon's opportunities in 2016. He was like a Bugatti that stayed in the garage except on special occasions. Only three times all season did he get double-digit carries in a game, with his high of 15 attempts coming in the Quick Lane Bowl loss to Boston College.
Despite his ridiculous efficiency, Johnson isn’t exactly angling for 20-plus carries per game.
“If that time ever came, I guess we’ll see,” he said. “But I’m all right with how the carries are distributed and everything.”
Maryland’s coaches weren’t even sure what they had in Johnson until about this time last year, when he began turning heads in spring practice.
He committed to the previous staff out of Cumberland, a small town in western Maryland that doesn’t produce many Division I athletes. The only other schools showing major interest in him before he committed to the Terps were Albany and Delaware.
“You can drive through the whole city in like five minutes,” Johnson said of his hometown. “Coaches did come in, but they weren’t really interested when they stopped by. They were probably just there to get something to eat on their way to somewhere else.”
Johnson ran the ball only 35 times as a freshman but showed what he could do in spurts, including the season finale against Rutgers when he ran for 87 yards and two touchdowns on just two touches. That’s a pretty good yards per carry average.
Johnson burst onto the Big Ten stage again in last year’s conference opener against Purdue, when he ran for 204 yards and a pair of scores on just seven carries. Though he was inconsistent during the year, with five games of fewer than 25 rushing yards, Johnson continually showed his big-play ability by ripping off dashes of 76, 66, 62 and 55 yards. His nine rushes of 40 yards or more tied for second most in the country, and his 10 total plays of 40 yards or more (including one reception) tied with Florida State's Dalvin Cook and Oklahoma's Joe Mixon for the most among FBS running backs.
“He has what I would say is elite speed,” Maryland running backs coach Anthony Tucker said. “He approaches his top speed very quickly. Everybody in our league now has to account for the fact this guy can go. He can go right by you and take it the distance if you’re not careful.”
So why didn’t Johnson get more touches? The Terps like to keep their backs fresh in Walt Bell’s high-paced offense, and they also had Lorenzo Harrison averaging 7.2 yards per carry before his late-season suspension. Harrison has been reinstated and will again split time with Johnson in 2017.
“Philosophically, we like to be able to play with more than one guy,” Tucker said. “So now we’ve got two guys who can run and catch the football, and maybe their touch totals equal 30-plus. That way you have a bunch of explosive pieces to your offense.”
Johnson wants to be known as more than just a home-run hitter. He came to campus weighing about 170 pounds but now is up to 205. When asked for his favorite moments from last season, he picked a couple that few other people would remember. He recalled a run against Purdue in which he busted through a would-be tackler, and a short gain versus Michigan in which he lowered his shoulder and knocked out the mouthpiece of a Wolverines defensive back.
“Everyone thinks I’m more of a speed back and I don’t have power,” he said, “so those are the ones I definitely enjoyed the most.”
He’s determined this spring to become a complete tailback, and his determination usually wins out.
In high school, a family friend told Johnson that he should make a list of 21 goals. Seven for the upcoming month, seven for the next few months and seven for the long term. Johnson recently found that list at home and realized he’d crossed out 18 of the 21, with the remaining ones involving things like starting a family and landing a good job. He made another list of 21 goals this winter, only about half of which involve football.
He also taught himself how to cook while growing up, learning at his mom’s side early on then experimenting in the kitchen when she worked the late shift. Johnson would call or text her if he had questions about a recipe or a technique.
“I didn’t always want to eat microwavable meals and stuff like that when she was working,” he said. “So I had to learn to start cooking for myself.”
Johnson’s teammates are still seeing the benefits from that experience. And when the ball’s in his hands, he can heat things up faster than a microwave.