Duke Johnson playing on different level

Miami telegraphed its intentions early on against Virginia Tech last week. The Canes wanted to ride Duke Johnson all the way to a win.

Some may have wondered: What took so long?

Johnson had his biggest game of the season because Miami made a strong commitment to him and the run game, pounding and pounding away against what is normally a stout Virginia Tech group. Miami opened the game with seven straight runs from Johnson. By the end of the night, he had 29 carries for a career-high 249 yards -- the most for an opponent in Lane Stadium history.

It also was the first time a Miami running back went over 200 yards since Willis McGahee rushed for 205 against Virginia Tech in 2002.

Johnson now has four straight 100-yard games, and as a result, his first 1,000-yard season. Perhaps overlooked because of his terrific rushing performance, Johnson also led the team with 37 yards receiving and ended up with two total touchdowns.

Nobody ever doubted Johnson was the best player on the Miami offense. But now, we are seeing a different, much better version of him.

“What can you say about what Duke is doing right now?” coach Al Golden said. “What you could see two years ago is how talented he was, but now you’re seeing somebody that’s very talented but also very skilled. He’s trusting everything and then when he gets in the second level, he does his thing. We’ve got to keep finding ways to get him the ball.”

Perhaps Miami did not get him the ball as much as it should have early in the season, though there are various reasons for that. Miami had turnover issues and played from behind in a few games. Johnson was terrific against Georgia Tech, but the Canes could not get him the ball more because they failed to sustain drives. Early on, teams were loading up the box, placing all of their emphasis on slowing down Johnson to make true freshman Brad Kaaya beat them.

But as Kaaya has grown, teams have had to begin to respect the pass -- especially with such a talented group of receivers. The Miami offensive line also is playing much better, and it had its best game of the season against the Hokies.

What stood out in the game, however, was the way Miami did not give up on the run after going three-and-out on the first drive. The Canes came back with Johnson in the Wildcat, and he got 15 yards. His next three carries led to a first down, and away Miami went.

“You pound the ball for the first quarter, the second quarter, second half, the big runs will come,” Johnson said. “That’s all Coach Golden was telling us all day, just keep doing what you’re doing and the big runs will come.”

Johnson ended up with eight runs that went 10 yards or longer. Only one of those came out of the Wildcat. His first big run while lined up at tailback came on the final play of the first quarter -- on his ninth carry on a handoff.

Given the opponent Saturday -- a North Carolina defense giving up an average of 210 yards per game -- a similar strategy could be used. Because Johnson has proven he is incredibly hard to tackle. Even Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster admitted after the game, “I was scared to death of Duke Johnson and he proved why.”

“We have the privilege of watching him every day,” Golden said. “He’s so much more mature right now, and I’m really happy for him because he deserves it. He’s working really hard. He’s finishing his runs really well, his pad level, not too many cuts in the backfield, second level, he’s doing his thing. He’s so smart down the field -- he protected the ball. All the little things that he did, he did it perfectly. He had a good mindset going into the game.”

Golden and teammates have seen a different Johnson since fall practice, when he was finally full go after a broken ankle against Florida State last year sidelined him. Johnson got bigger and stronger in the offseason. Though he is down to about 204 pounds now, the added strength is beginning to show itself now that Miami is in its final stretch of the season.

Johnson is averaging a career-high 7.5 yards per carry -- third-best in the country among running backs with 100 or more carries.

“I’ve been seeing it in him since he came back, just working at a different level,” Golden said. “These long runs he’s making, he’s doing it every day in practice. He’ll take the ball and go 30 yards, and the rest of the team will just look at him.”

Now everybody is looking at him. Because he is hitting his stride -- and that makes Miami a much more difficult team to stop.