AUBURN, Ala. -- Before Kerryon Johnson became arguably the most prolific scorer in major college football, before he single-handedly carried Auburn into playoff contention and before his coach threw his name into the Heisman Trophy conversation, he had to first overcome the fear of standing still.
The junior running back had always thought of his job as a binary proposition: go fast or go nowhere at all. You have to understand that when 300-pound linemen are bearing down on you, the fight-or-flight instinct kicks in quickly. And like most young backs, Johnson would try to sprint or muscle his way out of trouble every time.
But during the course of this past offseason, he studied Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell and took note of how patient he was. Johnson marveled at how Bell would literally stop running, stand behind his line and wait. And wait. And wait. And wait some more. Eventually, a running lane would develop and Bell would make something out of nothing.
Johnson couldn't believe it at first. He thought that Bell's size gave him an inherit advantage, that even if he was stuffed he could fall forward and pick up a couple of yards. "I'm not that big," Johnson told himself. "I won't be able to do it."
"It's scary to just stop your feet and wait for it to develop," he explained. "But all it means is when you see the hole, then you really got to hit it."
And by realizing that, it unlocked everything for the Huntsville, Alabama, native who is looking to knock off No. 1-ranked Alabama on Saturday.
Knowing he needed to work on his acceleration, Johnson rallied his fellow running backs Kamryn Pettway and Kam Martin to the sand pit twice a week during the summer. Every Saturday between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m., the trio would slog through the ankle-deep sand over and over and over at the team's practice facility. Then, with the help of strength coach Ryan Russell, they'd work on chain sprints and hill sprints.
"It took a lot," Johnson said, "but to see it pay off is very satisfying."
Right out of the gate, Johnson felt a difference.
With five minutes left in the first quarter of the season-opening game against Georgia Southern, Johnson took the handoff and followed his linemen to the right side of the field. And when his offensive tackle pancaked a defensive back on the edge, Johnson turned on the jets. Four defenders had an angle on him, and yet none of them stood a chance as he raced 60 yards to the house for Auburn's first touchdown of the season.
"I haven't run that fast in years," Johnson said. "It was nice to see myself move at that speed."
He'd pull a hamstring on another long run that game and missed two games recovering, including that 14-6 loss on the road at Clemson. But when he came back, he took over. With Pettway sidelined by a shoulder injury, Johnson became Auburn's workhorse back, carrying the ball 20 or more times in seven games this season.
Wideout Darius Slayton has taken to calling him the "Energizer Bunny" as a testament both to his reliability and his speed. To watch Johnson now is to see someone shot out of a cannon. He'll sit still in the pocket as the fuse burns to its end and then explode through the defense for big chunks of yardage.
Against then-No. 1 Georgia two weeks ago, Johnson went off for 167 yards on 32 carries. And that's to say nothing of the screen pass he took 55 yards to pay dirt against the Bulldogs.
"He waits and then he bursts," Georgia coach Kirby Smart said afterward. "He is a great running back and he totally bellowed our defense."
Former Georgia great and NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Todd Gurley gave him a shoutout on Twitter, writing, "Damn 21 Johnson a beast."
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn took it a step further, saying that Johnson deserved to be in the Heisman conversation.
"I don't know if there is a better running back out there," Malzahn said. "If so, I'd like to see it. He's one of the better players in college football, and he's proven that time and time again."
On Saturday, he'll face arguably his toughest test of the season in Alabama.
On the one hand, the Crimson Tide defense has given up fewer points than anyone in college football this season. But then there's Johnson, whose 16 rushing touchdowns are tied with Stanford's Bryce Love, USC's Ronald Jones II and Kentucky's Benny Snell Jr. for the most among Power 5 running backs despite playing in fewer games.
Meanwhile, no running back has rushed for more than 150 yards against Alabama during the regular season since Auburn's Tre Mason did it in 2013.
Johnson, who said he expects the atmosphere on campus to be "crazy" on Saturday, knows that Alabama will be gunning for him. As Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick summarized on Monday: "They love to run the ball, run the ball, run the ball and then throw shots over the top." Which roughly translates to stop Kerryon and you stop Auburn.
So don't be surprised if you see eight- and nine-man fronts from Alabama's defense.
Nick Saban & Co. will try to swarm Johnson -- just don't expect him to get flustered and panic.
He knows the rush is coming, and he's learned that patience in the face of pressure can take him and Auburn a long way.
"They've got a job to do, I've got a job to do," Johnson said simply. "One of us is going to do it better than the other. It's just how it goes. Although they've got a game plan to stop the run, we've got a game plan to run the ball. I'm going out there to execute our game plan."