UM back Johnson could bring Miami 'back'

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- The Las Vegas gambling community considers Miami to be the ACC Coastal Division team with the best chance to win the conference. Based on point spreads, it also sees the Hurricanes as the team with the best chance to upset Florida State this season.

With Miami handing the starting quarterback job to a true freshman and a defense that hasn't convinced many outsiders it will be vastly improved, much of the positive preseason outlooks stem from the return of running back Duke Johnson.

What does he think about Las Vegas' predictions?

"I don't deal with Vegas. Vegas confuses me," Johnson said smiling. "I just play football."

The follow-up question was whether Miami is finally "back," an annual preseason query but an even more pressing one in 2014 now that Florida State has returned as a player on the national landscape.

"I don't see why we could say [Miami is back]. We don't have a reason to say that. We've been in the ACC for 10 years and haven't been to the ACC championship once," he said. "We were co-Coastal champs, but that doesn't count as a step. We have to win it outright."

Johnson said there is progress that indicates the Hurricanes are at least a program on the rise, but it was stunted 10 months ago in Tallahassee. Miami rode the then-sophomore Johnson to a 7-0 start to the season, setting up a nationally televised, prime-time game against Florida State. It had the pre-game hype reminiscent of the late 1980s and 1990s, but Miami was blown out. Its season derailed from there, too, with the loss of Johnson to an ankle injury that cost him the rest of 2013. The Hurricanes would go on to lose three of their final five games, and in three of those games the running backs failed to rush for 100 yards combined.

The only pain Johnson said he felt from the ankle fracture came in the following weeks. When he initially broke it, he said his foot went numb. The pain arose the next two Saturdays while he watched Miami, which still could have won the division and set up a Florida State rematch, lose to Virginia Tech and Duke, sending Miami on a three-game skid. Johnson saddles himself with some of the responsibility from that streak, wishing he prepared his backups better.

"That could have been our first time winning the Coastal," Johnson said.

Miami coach Al Golden acknowledges there will be games when his star player will be tapped for 30 carries and probably more. Johnson knows it, too. But there is a belief in Coral Gables the weapons around Johnson, even with freshman Brad Kaaya at quarterback, will be enough to warrant Johnson being used in more than one role.

Johnson welcomes it, too. During an hour-long media session, he was asked at least three times if he has any 2014 personal goals -- rushing yards, touchdowns, receptions, Heisman press -- and each time he shook his head.

"You ask Duke to return kicks, he returns kicks. You ask Duke to split out in the slot, he goes in the slot. You throw him a screen, he'll catch a screen. But you don't have to take Duke Johnson out on third down or in pass protection," Golden said. "He's an unselfish kid."

Miami has a tough beginning to the season with its opener on Labor Day against newcomer Louisville. It also has a road game at Nebraska and hosts reigning Coastal champion Duke and Arkansas State, one of the most successful Group of Five teams of the past few years.

With marquee national and conference games through the first half of the season, Johnson is counting down the days before the Sept. 1 opener.

Asked what he has left to prove, he said: "A lot."