HUNTINGTON, W.Va.— He’s been tight end, H-back, linebacker and now he’s The Herd’s starting tailback. But you won’t find his name in any of the preview magazines or preseason scouting reports. That’s because Devon Johnson surprised everyone when he lined up in the backfield on the first day of preseason camp. However, no one was surprised when he was listed at Marshall’s starting running back when the initial two-deep was released on Tuesday.
Johnson leaped-frogged veteran running backs Steward Butler and Remi Watson on the depth chart by earning the trust of the coaching staff his Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback.
“I know Cato likes him because if he gets an A- or B-gap blitzer, he has a shot of sticking it up in there and that guy not getting him. Cato likes him back there and so do I,” said Doc Holliday.
Holliday insisted early in camp he would find a running back he trusted, who could not only run with the ball in his hands but provide the necessary protection for quarterback Rakeem Cato. That is what set Johnson apart from the others during camp.
“My surprise was the protection stuff,” offensive coordinator Bill Legg said. “The thing I was most pleased with was how quickly he picked up on our protection schemes, because they’re relatively entailed. He’s done an excellent job there.”
Legg and Holliday were not looking for a back who excelled in just handling the ball. The running back’s ability to pick up blitzes and protect Cato’s blindside is equally, if not more important, than his yards per carry. Essray Taliferro rocketed up the depth chart a season ago largely because of his blocking ability in the backfield. Of course, Taliferro was also a dangerous runner as rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2013.
Johnson has also displayed an attribute Doc Holliday values very highly, that is the willingness to play wherever the team needs him. He’s spent time on both sides ball, on the line scrimmage, split out and now in the backfield.
“He’d never played running back at the college level. He was playing tight end and working all the little idiosyncrasies that go along with playing tight end but don’t forget that kid played running back all the way through,” said Legg. “He was a running back and linebacker in high school.”
The 243-pounder is a bruiser in the backfield. There are some backs who use finesse to avoid contact, Johnson looks for it. He may not run away from defensive backs but he can certainly run over them.
“He’s brought a physicality to that position that we haven’t seen for three or four years,” Holliday said.
Herd fans have had a taste of Johnson’s abilities. He punched in a pair of touchdowns running out of the “Big Cheese” goal line package last year.
“I wasn’t totally shocked in the run game and I wasn’t shocked with his eye discipline and I wasn’t totally shocked in how he ran the ball, because I’ve seen him run the ball when we threw it to him,” Legg said.