Johnson produces big plays for Pirates
Chris Johnson isn't shy about his aspirations.
The Conference USA Special Teams Player of the Year and East Carolina running back/kick returner plans to use his breakout season as a springboard to a career in the NFL.
In the meantime, he sees his team's reward for a 7-5 season -- a matchup with No. 24 Boise State in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl on Sunday -- as a possible preview of things to come.
"It's a real good reward because most people in their lifetime don't really go to Hawaii and most times it's real hard to make the Pro Bowl in the NFL," Johnson said. "Hopefully I'll make it and be back over here, but people really don't go to Hawaii in their college career."
The Pirates back is the "staple of the offense," as coach Skip Holtz puts it, and Johnson's had a couple of things to staple to his résumé lately. He garnered first-team All-America honors as a kick return specialist by Pro Football Weekly, and was an honorable mention by Sports Illustrated. That's not bad for a guy who wasn't fully established going into his senior season because of injuries.
Besides his prowess as a kick returner (he had a 96-yard TD runback against Central Florida) Johnson was at his deadliest in the backfield for ECU. He made all 12 starts and rushed for 1,200 yards on 5.8 yards per carry and 16 touchdowns, caught another 486 yards in passes with five scores, and generally stamped his presence everywhere the Pirates made port with an NCAA-best 212.67 all-purpose yards per game.
Then there was his gift to the Memphis Tigers last month, a 301-yard rushing day on 20 carries with four touchdowns. That was the fifth-best running performance in Division I-A football in 2007.
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Johnson considers his running style "a mixture of LT (LaDainian Tomlinson), Brian Westbrook, and a little Reggie Bush."
His coach and teammates say he has the work ethic and game to back up his ambition.
"He's a great young man. He works extremely hard, he's been very patient with his opportunity and he's really made the most of it this year," Holtz said.
Johnson always had flashes of potential, but because of offseason neck surgery before his junior year and a turf toe injury halfway through it, he was primarily used as a kick returner and part-time tailback after making contributions as a true freshman. His determination never wavered, however, and he's primed for the upcoming duel with the Broncos' Ian Johnson, a hyped Heisman Trophy candidate going into the year.
"It's a real difficult process, you know what I'm sayin'," Johnson said. "From coming in, playing right away my freshman year, being all-conference special teams and all that. After that, comin' back, worked hard in the offseason, feels real good to pay off now."
Quarterback Rob Kass, a Florida native like Johnson, marveled at his ethic bouncing back.
"Chris is extremely talented, but more than anything he works hard," Kass said. "He prepares like no other guy I've ever been around. You could say he's talented, he's the fastest guy in the country, this-that-and-the-other, but he comes and he works. He puts in the extra time. And it shows on Saturdays."
This weekend, people will find out if he can do the same on Sundays.