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Mitch Vingle: MU’s Johnson Huntington’s new Rock Star

MITCH VINGLE | Gazette
Devon Johnson filled a void for Marshall when he moved from tight end to running back.

HUNTINGTON — Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

There’s a major-college football team that’s expected to win its conference title. It’s expected to make a run at a major bowl game. Yet right before the season, it takes a backup tight end and makes him the starting running back.

Um ... you haven’t stopped me.

Perhaps that’s because what’s going on in Marshall’s preseason camp is one of the most unlikely, yet wildly popular, moves you’ll ever hear of in college football.

And the star of the move is No. 47 Devon Johnson.

Actually, he’s more than a star. See, his nickname was “Rockhead.” Then it was shortened to “Rock.”

Now?

“Coach [Doc Holliday] said he’s going to call me ‘Rock Star,’ ” Johnson said with a smile.

MU fans don’t have to worry. Johnson, a 6-foot-1, 243-pound bowling ball, is about as unassuming and grounded of a player as you’ll find. He’s humble. Yet he can rumble.

“It feels good,” Johnson said. “I worked hard for two years. I put in a lot of work. Now to work with the first team is a blessing. I have to keep working hard to maintain this. We have a lot of great running backs.”

Actually, the Thundering Herd had a talented one in Kevin Grooms. After three arrests in 18 months, however, he was dismissed. A piece to MU’s shiny puzzle was missing.

So MU’s coaches hatched a plan. Normally, before the season, they retreat to Mingo County. This year, though, they stayed in Huntington. And they found the answer right there at home — laboring at tight end.

“We felt we needed someone there that we can totally trust,” Holliday said. “We wanted a good football player and we felt we had other guys at tight end.”

That was evident during Wednesday morning’s practice. Eric Frohnapfel, all 6-7, 235 pounds of him, was snagging passes. Ditto 6-6, 254-pound Joe Woodrum.

“We’re still powerful at tight end with Froh and Joe with their size and [freshman Ryan] Yurachek, who runs great routes,” Johnson said.

The staff knew of Johnson’s background. If you think his nickname has evolved, check out his playing career. He was a running back in high school at Richlands, Va., where he had 3,201 rushing yards and a whopping 49 touchdowns his last two seasons. He was known for his stiff-arms and ability to run over defenders. In the red zone, he was next to impossible to stop.

“The stiff-arm was my move in high school,” Johnson said. “Now I try to work on my fanciness and step up my game. I try to make it better, rather than just be a powerful runner. I want [defenders] to be surprised when they come up to me.”

How can you not love a kid who works on his fanciness? He’s powerful. He runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash. And he works on his fanciness.

Last season, MU used Johnson in the red zone five times and was rewarded with three touchdowns. He had 12 catches for 218 yards and another couple TDs.

He was recruited to Marshall, though, as a linebacker. And it’s no wonder why. Johnson was his area’s defensive player of the year with 112 tackles and — are you ready for this? — 34 tackles for loss.

“I played a bigger role on defense,” Johnson said of his high school days. “My teammates looked up to me on defense. On offense we had a lot of weapons. I was the defensive captain and I really loved it.

“I love both, though, and whatever the team needs I do it.”

Which led Johnson from high school linebacker and college tight end to the move to MU’s backfield.

“I had no idea it was coming,” Johnson said. “I came back [to camp] and Coach [Todd] Hartley said, ‘Can I talk to you after the run?’ He told me I was needed at running back. He wanted to make sure I wouldn’t be mad. I was like, ‘Coach, I’m here for you. I’m a team player.’ ”

He’s there to run. But he’s also there to block. Much rides on the health of quarterback Rakeem Cato. Holliday said the number of carries Johnson receives will be based on what the Herd’s opponents allow.

“In some games he might get 20-plus carries,” said the coach. “In others he won’t.”

“However many they want to give me is fine,” Johnson said. “If they want me to sit there all game and protect [Cato], I’ll do that. If they want me to carry the ball 40 times a game, I’ll do that. Whatever they want me to do.”

Johnson has been a company man all along — since turning down Virginia and accepting an offer from MU after his sophomore high school season.

“It just felt comfortable when I first came here,” Johnson said. “It felt like home. When I was asked how I’m doing, they really wanted to know. They care. I made the right decision because they still do.”

Marshall fans will like him even more if practice is any indicator. On Wednesday, No. 47 took the handoff on an inside drill. Pads popped. The defensive line was pushed back. And No. 47 emerged on the other side — even before a late whistle stopped the action.

It’s quite a story. Johnson has moved from tight end into the starting running back role. He’s moved from “Rockhead” to “Rock Star.” He was recruited as a linebacker.

Oh yeah, and remember how Johnson came from Richlands?

Well, while there he was a proud Blue Tornado.

Today, thankfully for Holliday and MU fans, he’s moved again.

And become a green one.

Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, mitchvingle@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.


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