FanPost

The best running back you never heard of


Let me tell you about a college football player.

This football player was a 2/3 star recruit coming out of high school. He was easy to spot on the football field, standing a short and squat 5'7" and 200 pounds. His freshman year, he was used mostly as the team's primary kick returner, and he showed promise there, averaging 22 yards per return and scoring a touchdown. He barely saw any action rushing until his final game of the season, where he ran wild against the defending national champions to the tune of 127 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.

His sophomore season saw a new four star recruit join the fold at the same position. But the player held his own as the offense developed a running back by committee approach. He only saw a few carry attempts, but made the most of them, rushing for 6 yards per carry on the year. He again did well in a high pressure environment, running for 107 yards on 14 carries against the number one ranked team in a narrow loss.

He came into his junior season expecting to have a greater impact, possibly even starting, but ended up sidelined from a bowel injury, and redshirted for all of that time. As the season continued, that four star recruit exploded onto the scene, showing off his athleticism and rushing for over 1000 yards. The football player was pushed out of the spotlight.

The football player entered his redshirt junior season much the same way he had ended his junior season - injured, and on the bench while someone else started games. The athletic player, it turned out, was dealing with injury issues of his own, and had to miss the entirety of the season. It was the perfect chance for the football player to show his value to the coaches - if he could get them to trust him. Finally, halfway through the year, he had shown the coaches that he deserved the ball, and he started getting more touches. 8, 12, 15, 9, and 15 again. Sometimes he started, and sometimes he had to wait for his carries, but he was making them count. As he finished his first season with a large number of touches, he could be satisfied with how he played - 106 carries for 670 yards, 6.32 yards per carry.

The long road of the football player's college career was coming to an end in his redshirt senior season, and he was determined to make it count. But he had one more obstacle in his way - the athlete from before was back from injury and ready to lay claim to the full-time starting role. The football player spent five games with limited touches, waiting for his chance to make an impact. He was still doing his best though - with 27 runs, he picked up 170 yards in those five games. At last, his last chance opened - the athletic player was still limited by the injury he had suffered the year before, and not playing at the level he used to. The football player was finally given the starting role. This was his chance! To show the fans and coaches that the right choice was made, and that he could help lead his team to victory! Confidence renewed, he railed off a string of great games - 17/76/2, 12/82/2, 27/161/1, 22/109/2! His last three games, against some tough defenses, were disappointments, but he finished the season with an excellent 137 carries for 757 yards and a 5.5 average. This is what he was meant to do - be the star running back!

It was only a matter of time now. 23 years old, and at the end of college, it was time to prepare for the NFL draft. He picked his agent and began his offseason training. Unfortunately, his college team didn't finish 2012 with a good enough record to be bowl-eligible, but he watched the games on TV as he worked out. He waited for the call about one of the college all-star games. He didn't think the Senior Bowl was going to call, but maybe the East-West Shrine game, or the Texas vs. the Nation Bowl. But he never got a call. Undeterred, he continued his training. He knew the NFL Combine was coming, which always invited 200+ of the top draft prospects and was the perfect place to show off his (he thought) underrated athleticism.

But he never got a call.

At this point, he probably started to question himself. Was there something wrong with him as a prospect? Were teams scared away by his injury from two years ago? Was it his fumbling, something that had bothered him throughout his career (5 fumbles in both 2011 and 2012)? But he returned his focus to the training, and trusted that the NFL had the greatest scouts in the world, and surely they would recognize the talent he had.

Finally, it was time for something he knew was coming - his college's pro day. Here he would show that he was the best runner at his college. Here he would show that those bowl games, and the Combine, missed out on someone who is going to be Great.

He showed them.

Running a 4.4 40 yard dash (only 0.03 seconds slower than the athlete who once held the starting position in his grasp) and broad jumping nearly 10 feet, despite his diminutive stature, he showcased those powerful legs that had chopped through the defenses in his career. He benched 225 pounds 21 times, more than some of the tackles on his team. And most importantly, he got on the radar - the NFL teams knew who he was. And with one month until the draft, all he had to do was wait.

He's waiting for the call.

That football player is Dennis Johnson, running back from Arkansas, generally ranked as between the 7th and 20th best running back prospect for this year's draft. I don't know him personally, but I certainly know of him, and if there is one specific player that I would want Buffalo to absolutely get on their roster, Johnson would be it.

At 5 feet 7.5 inches tall and 196 pounds, Johnson immediately makes you think of the last short and stout running back to enter the league - Maurice Jones-Drew. And while MJD was much more highly touted than Johnson ever was, that is the best comparison I've seen. MJD, at 5'7" and 210 pounds, runs a 4.39 40 yard dash, hits defenders like a wrecking ball, and accelerates to top gear in a hurry. And Johnson is the same way, which is apparent if you watch any of his film.

Like MJD, Johnson started his career as a dynamic kick returner. Like MJD, Johnson has dealt with fumbling issues (MJD had 18 fumbles in his first 5 years of the NFL, DJ had 14 in his 4 years of college). Unlike MJD, no one is talking about Dennis Johnson (and I can't fathom why). He's not the most talked about player on his football team. That would be Tyler Wilson, the QB that has experts claiming he either is or isn't a franchise QB daily. He's not even the most famous runner from his team - that would be the athlete from the story, Knile Davis, who has dealt with injuries all his life but shown to be incredibly explosive when healthy.

I'm going to include a couple videos to give you an idea of Johnson's playstyle. He is, in my opinion, the best complement we could give CJ Spiller, to keep Spiller and Fred Jackson fresh and ease the transition away from Jackson.

First, here's his game against Ole Miss from his redshirt senior season this year. You're going to see him do something very few college RB's do: Pass block. And he's not half bad at it.

You'll also see how he rarely goes down with the first defender. It takes 2, 3, or sometimes 4 tacklers before he finally touches the knee down. This style of powerful running helps him fight forward for extra yards despite a weak offensive line - unfortunately, it also makes him prone to fumbling. But you didn't just want to see the pass blocking and 3 yard runs, you want to see some highlight reel stuff to justify picking him in the draft, right? Check out the three consecutive runs at 5:21 that finish the video. First one - speed and agility, using his cuts to make defenders miss and make a big play. Second one - power! He makes something like 8 defenders miss before finally getting taken down. Third one - smarts. He follows his blocker, stays low, and powers into the end zone for the touchdown.

Secondly, here's a video which compiles his major games from 2011, his redshirt junior season: Mississippi, South Carolina (including matchups against our own Stephon Gilmore), and Mississippi State.

If you're looking for highlight-reel runs, you'll find them in this video. This one also gives you a better idea of Johnson's choppy, energetic running style - a major tempo shift from CJ's fluid speed. Can you imagine being a defender who has to transition between the abrupt cuts of Dennis Johnson and the fast juking of CJ Spiller?

Side note - these videos also are what started to sour me on Tyler Wilson. I saw lots of missed opportunities due to underthrown passes on those pass blocking reps from Johnson. Reminded me way too much of Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Here's the deal with Dennis Johnson:

Career rushing: 345 attempts for 2036 yards and 13 touchdowns. 14 fumbles. 5.90 yards per carry.

Career receiving: 64 receptions for 510 yards and 4 touchdowns. 7.97 yards per reception.

Career returning: 119 returns for 2784 yards and 3 touchdowns. 23.4 yards per return.

I could see him going anywhere between the 3rd and 7th round of the NFL draft, depending on how much the NFL front offices are paying attention. His blend of athleticism and production makes me think he's too good to be overlooked, but then I see how he was snubbed by the offseason bowls and the Combine and I wonder how far he'll fall. I guarantee that whatever team takes him is finding someone who could start in the NFL. My projection for him is that he ends up with similar production to Fred Jackson, although maybe spaced out over a few more years and with some years of fewer than 600 yards from scrimmage. But this is a player who seems too good to miss out on. I hope Buddy was watching the right player when he went to the Arkansas Pro Day.

Just another great fan opinion shared on the pages of BuffaloRumblings.com.

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