Back healthy, Duke Johnson primed for return to form for Hurricanes

CORAL GABLES, Fla. — An orange No. 8 jersey raced toward the end zone untouched during money drills Wednesday afternoon at the Greentree Practice Fields.

Junior Duke Johnson resembled his All-ACC persona — a welcome sight for both the University of Miami football program and its fans.

And yet there were a few minor differences: a blue facemask visor and the extra muscle on his physique.

"He’s doing great," head coach Al Golden said. "He’s got an energy about him, a focus about him that has continued since the spring. Physical, more durable, stronger version of Duke Johnson but faster. At 208 pounds now running as fast a 40 (yard dash) as a Miami Hurricane. Excited about the edge he brings to this training camp."

Johnson, who sustained a season-ending ankle injury during the Florida State game, has been fully integrated with the offense since the spring. He has since worked with head strength and conditioning coach Andreu Swasey and his staff on adding weight to get bigger and stronger.

That’s not to say Johnson will become a power guy rather than the speedster reputation he earned both in high school and college.

"It’ll just help with durability and playing football and being tougher," Johnson said. "I feel that I’m faster than I was last year with the extra weight. Coach Swasey and his staff did a great job with helping me put the weight on the right way."

Before the injury, Johnson had rushed for 920 yards and six touchdowns on 145 carries. He averaged 115 yards per game and 6.3 yards per carry.

Who ya got?

With Miami keeping up with eventual national champion Florida State, Johnson had accumulated 97 yards on the ground. Following the injury, the Seminoles pulled away in the second half.

"Biggest thing we want to see him pick up where he left off," Golden said. "He was pressing his runs, they were hitting where they were designed to hit, so we had great discipline from him last year. He was running between the tight ends really well and got to second level and allowed his talent to take over. But he was very disciplined in that.

"Again, I don’t know if you guys feel the same way as observers but he was running differently in those last 3 1/2 games. He was running as strong and as hard as I’ve ever seen him run. Delivering stiff arms, running where the ball needed to be run. Moments prior to the injury — as well as anybody all year. We need him to pick up where he left off and go from there."

Johnson and senior wide receiver Phillip Dorsett are two key returners to a unit that missed them as the season reached the stretch run.

Over the final six games, including Johnson’s early exit, the offense averaged just 358 yards and 21 points. Through the first seven, the Hurricanes produced 484 yards and 39.5 points.

Dorsett is the other playmaker hoping to bounce back after a promising season was prematurely cut short. He partially tore a ligament in his left knee at North Carolina.

Up to that point, he had caught 13 passes for 272 yards and two touchdowns over parts of eight games. His average yards per reception had increased from 14.5 in 2012 to 20.9. Although Dorsett tried to come back for the Russell Athletic Bowl, he only saw action on one down in the 36-9 loss to Louisville.

"It hurt, of course," Dorsett said. "That was my first real serious injury. It hurt. I always want to be out there. I want to be able to do everything to help my teammates win. Me not being there felt sort of like — with my personality — I was letting them down. I just try to have a good season this year."

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Offensive coordinator James Coley made it known how much the unit missed Dorsett’s speed. During the summer, his average 40-yard time has improved to 4.21 — fastest on the team.

Completely healthy, Dorsett expects to make an impact with an experienced receiving corps that brings back All-ACC sophomore Stacy Coley, junior Herb Waters, senior Rashawn Scott and redshirt sophomore Malcolm Lewis. It did, however, lose Allen Hurns, who set Miami’s single-season record for yardage in 2013.

Dorsett wants to stay hungry every down and hopes his teammates will do the same. Out of everything he learned while sitting out, staying on track stuck with him the most.

"I don’t really have that many expectations for myself, honestly," Dorsett said. "I just want us to go out and win games. That’s all I’ve been wanting to do since I’ve been here. Just win games. Take every day day-by-day and every game game-by-game."

Added Johnson: "I’m very excited because this is the year I have to do it, especially with all the added weight and all the hard work I put in since I got hurt. This is going to be a season I’ve been waiting for."

ALL THE DELAYS

For the second straight day, inclement weather put a halt on camp. On Wednesday, players and coaches had to wait it out for 90 minutes.

Golden said he had to tell the assistant coaches, eager to continue talking strategy, to leave the players alone.

"Interruptions are part of it no matter where you are," Golden said. "There’s always some kind of distraction whether it’s class, the media or guy gets injured. Whatever the case. I’m glad you asked. I just told them how great it was to see a team come out after that kind of delay and just have that kind of focus and energy. I thought they really competed. That was really mature for them to be able to do that."

MULTIPLE ROLES

Sophomore Ryan Tucker saw reps at the linebacker position Wednesday.

Tucker, who was converted to fullback last season, played in eight games — primarily on special teams. He is still listed as the starter at fullback.

"For the amount we use the fullback he has enough reps built up that we could use him at fullback and yet he could be a full-time linebacker and special teams guy for us," Golden said. "That’s going to keep him tackling, keep him on the defensive side, goal-line short yardage and when we are in two backs. Walter’s still the first fullback for this team."

WELCOME TO THE CLUB

Freshman Trayone Gray suited up for Wednesday’s practice. Junior transfer wide receiver Darrell Langham is expected to join camp on Friday.

You can follow Christina De Nicola on Twitter @CDeNicola13 or email her at cdenicola13@gmail.com.