Miami Hurricanes running back Duke Johnson may not be as well-known as Todd Gurley from Georgia or Wisconsin back Melvin Gordon. He may not have National Championship rings like Karlos Williams of Florida State or T.J. Yeldon of Alabama. What Johnson does have is an opportunity to improve his NFL draft stock more than any other RB in the country.
I currently have Johnson ranked as the seventh best draft-eligible back in college; behind Gurley, Gordon, South Carolina RB Mike Davis, Yeldon, Williams, and Jay Ajayi of Boise State. By the end of the season, it wouldn’t surprise me if Johnson climbs to second on the list behind Gurley. There’s even a chance, albeit a small one due to the decline of running back draft stock, that Johnson sneaks into the end of Round 1.
Johnson is an explosive back with great vision both out of the backfield and as a kick returner. In 20 career games, he has six runs of 50 yards or more. He’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball. As a freshman, Johnson compiled over 2,000 total yards. Last season, he was hampered by an ankle injury, but still ran for 920 yards in just eight games. In order to climb draft boards, he needs to stay healthy for the entire season.
With Stephen Morris gone and Ryan Williams blowing out a knee in the spring, true freshman Brad Kaaya will be taking over the starting QB role for the Hurricanes. With a freshman QB, Miami will rely heavily on the run game early in the season. Defenses will know this and load the box in hopes of stopping Johnson. Luckily for Miami, of their first five opponents, only Louisville had a top 50 run defense last year.
Even if Johnson is given a large workload, NFL teams don’t need to fear wear and tear. Johnson has fewer carries than four of the six backs I have ranked ahead of him. One with fewer rushes, Karlos Williams, played defensive back until last season. In fact, Johnson is on pace to have 426 career carries, less than 24 of the 27 backs selected in the first round since 2004.
If Johnson can stay healthy and play to the level he did before the ankle injury, he will soar up NFL draft boards. His vision and receiving ability out of the backfield, both of which may be the best in the country, make Johnson an appealing pick for teams in need of a home run threat.
Related: Preseason 2015 NFL Mock Draft