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Thursday, February 20, 2003
Updated: February 25, 5:38 PM ET
Johnson battling perception of Penn State backs
By John Clayton

INDIANAPOLIS -- For years, Penn State was known as Linebacker University. With potential first-rounders such as Jimmy Kennedy and Michael Haynes coming off the collegiate success of Courtney Brown, defensive linemen are starting a campaign to get their position attached to the nickname.

Larry Johnson
Larry Johnson rushed for 2,087 yards last season for Penn State.
Sandwiched between the days of great linebackers such as Jack Ham and the current string of promising young defensive linemen, Penn State had a run of first-round running backs. There was Blair Thomas, Curtis Enis and Ki-Jana Carter just to name a few. Though they were college stars, they were considered NFL busts.

Enter Larry Johnson, Penn State running back. He became the ninth Division I-A player to rush for more than 2,000 yards last season. Normally, that would put a college senior in the top half of the first round of the NFL draft. That doesn't appear to be the case. He's rated more toward the bottom of the first round even though he probably will be the first back selected.

Could NFL teams be holding the running back ghosts of Penn State past against him?

"It may hurt me; it may not hurt me," Johnson said of how the Penn State backfield history might be held against him. "I'm the only Penn State running back whose actually had only one full starting season. Other guys had more wear and tear than I did where they have had two or three seasons where they started and got most of the pounding."

Of course, by saying that, Johnson might have the "One-Year" wonder tag applied. Naturally, Johnson takes the positive approach. And why not after gaining so many positive yards in a season.

He believes a new era is dawning for Penn State running backs.

"You've got to look at the fact that each player is different," Johnson said. "Kenny Watson is doing real well in Washington. Omar Easy is doing fine with the Chiefs. There is a different, new breed of athlete coming out at running back here."

Johnson says the reason for the difference is that Penn State has had better success passing the ball in recent years. Backs from the old days were part of an offense so conservative that a pitchout was considered adventurous. Paterno won with simplicity and execution and running backs carried the offense.

Times change and even the Lions occasionally spread the field with receivers.

"We had a good quarterback and that opened things up for me," Johnson said. "I didn't get knocked around a lot."

What Johnson is doing at the weeklong scouting combine in Indianapolis is knocking on doors trying to win over the teams looking for running backs. His resume is unquestioned coming off a 2,087-yard season. Paterno called Johnson one of the "greatest football players I've been around, if not the greatest."

But Johnson can't shop just that quote. He has to sell his personality and promote his skills.

I say I'm more power than speed, but I have a good combination of both. I know when I need to turn it on and I know when I don't need to. I also bring attitude. There are a lot of good runners. Each runner has his own distinct style. But their heart and attitude are totally different in each players.
Larry Johnson, former Penn State running back

"I haven't been outgoing, but I had people come down to work with me on that," Johnson said. "I've been doing pretty good in the interviews."

In those interviews, Johnson is asked to state the obvious. He is asked to describe his style. To him, that's as easy as finishing the season by running through the Michigan State Spartan defense for 279 yards.

"I say I'm more power than speed, but I have a good combination of both," Johnson said. "I know when I need to turn it on and I know when I don't need to. I also bring attitude. There are a lot of good runners. Each runner has his own distinct style. But their heart and attitude are totally different in each players."

Johnson has more to show teams about his dedication to the game than just his exceptional senior season. Even though he waited for an eternity to get his chance to start, Johnson didn't give up his roll on special teams. If asked to play kickoff coverage or whatever, Johnson was there.

"If anything, I think what I bring to a team is my heart and attitude," Johnson said.

For style, Johnson considers himself in the mold and style of an Eddie George. He's 6-1, 228 pounds and one season of pounding instead of three have left his legs fresh instead of tired. He knows how important it will be to put up a good time running a 40-yard dash. He's confident he can run a 4.4 40 because he hasn't run anything but a 4.4 since high school.

"If I ran a 4.8, I'd be a linebacker," Johnson said. "Where you go, though, depends on who runs what. If I run a 4.8 and some kid comes up and runs a 4.2, that changes things quickly. Nobody could say where they are heading."

Seven weeks ago, Johnson, despite his 2,000-yard season, was considered the No. 2 running back in the draft behind Willis McGahee of Miami. But McGahee plummeted form the first round by tearing three knee ligaments.

That moved Johnson to the top of the running back charts. But he still has to battle the preception of Penn State backs in the pros. That's fine with him.

John Clayton is a senior writer for