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Can Duke Johnson make Heisman move?

11/4/2014

It was around this time last year that Boston College running back Andre Williams made his move into the Heisman conversation.

Can Miami running back Duke Johnson and Pitt running back James Conner do the same? It is a fascinating question to ponder, especially when you consider how many good running backs there are in college football this season.

Melvin Gordon at Wisconsin and Ameer Abdullah at Nebraska top that list, at least for now. Gordon has been featured among the top three on the ESPN.com Heisman Watch for the last several weeks; Abdullah had been on the list, but he got hurt last week and dropped out.

With Abdullah off the list, Johnson picked up two fourth-place votes this week, including one from me. Simply put, his performances against Virginia Tech and North Carolina are hard to ignore.

Conner, who leads the nation in rushing, merits similar consideration as well -- though his team’s 4-5 record won’t do him any favors.

I asked one ACC defender who has faced both players for his input. Would he put Johnson or Conner on the Heisman Watch if he had a choice?

“I would definitely put both on the Heisman Watch because they’re both incredible players,” he said. “I would say that Conner -- he’s the most unique back we’ve seen in the sense that he’s 250 pounds, 6-2 and he can flat out run. It’s really a thing that you’ve never seen before.

“Duke Johnson is probably the most unbelievable athlete I’ve ever seen play. Some of the cuts he makes and some of the lateral moves he can make are out of this world. He’s one of those guys you know for a fact is going to make it in the NFL. He’s that good.

“It’s scary to play both players. I couldn’t tell you which one is better, but in their own way, they’re really good.”

For comparison’s sake, let’s take a look at how Johnson and Conner have fared through nine games, compared to Williams through nine games last season.

While Conner leads the nation in rushing, Johnson leads the nation in yards from scrimmage. He separates himself from both Williams and Conner because of the way Miami has used him out of the backfield.

Johnson has fewer yards rushing than both Williams and Conner through nine games; however, he has 21 receptions for 273 yards and two touchdowns. That’s also more than Abdullah and Gordon have receiving. If you factor in total yards from scrimmage for the two Big Ten backs, Johnson has the highest yards gained per play (Gordon is at 7.4; Abdullah at 7.1).

Resident ACC stat guru David Hale dug up some more numbers that tilt in Johnson’s favor:

  • Johnson has had at least 90 rushing yards in every game this season, the only player in the country to do that in his first nine games.

  • Since Week 5, he is second in the nation to Gordon in rushingyards (843).

  • Since Week 5, he has run 97 times and with only seven carries that went for a loss or no gain (7.2 percent) -- the lowest rate for a non-option back with at least 75 carries. Since Oct. 1, he has been tackled behind the line of scrimmage just five times.

  • Since Week 5, no running back in the nation has averaged more yards per rush than Johnson’s 8.7 (min 75 carries).

  • Overall, Johnson has 39 runs of 10 yards or more. Conner has more (40), though he has 62 more carries. Based on percentage of rushing attempts, no running back in the nation has a higher rate of runs gaining 10-plus yards (24.7 percent).

Hale also points out one more interesting stat. Through nine games, Conner (1,342 yards) and Johnson (1,213) rank second and third, respectively, in yards rushing among all ACC players in the last decade. Williams tops the list.

Based on his versatility and overall consistency, Johnson has the edge over Conner. In two games this season, Conner has averaged 4 yards or fewer per carry. The lowest mark Johnson had was in the opener, 4.5 yards per carry against Louisville, a team that geared all its efforts to stopping Johnson and putting the game on the shoulders of a true freshman quarterback.

Johnson also does not fumble nearly as much, and that needs to be valued as well.

Where Williams truly separated himself was in Weeks 9-11, when he racked up 897 yards rushing (including 339 against NC State). That incredible span helped send Williams to a 2,000-yard season and New York for the Heisman ceremony, where he finished fourth.

While Johnson isn't on pace for a 2,000-yard rushing season, the Florida State game next week is absolutely critical for his potential Heisman hopes.

In two previous games against the Noles, Johnson has 124 combined yards and averaged 3.9 yards per rush. Last season, he broke his ankle in the third quarter after coming close to 100 yards and missed the rest of 2013.

But now, coach Al Golden says Johnson is running better than at any point in the last three years. The opportunity is there for Johnson to make a statement in the month of November, the way Williams did a season ago.

ACC reporter David Hale contributed to this report.