Duke Johnson better than ever after last year’s injury vs. Seminoles

With 252 more yards, Miami Hurricanes running back Duke Johnson will pass Ottis Anderson as the all-time leading rusher in program history (3,332).

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CORAL GABLES, Fla. — University of Miami junior running back Duke Johnson circled the date of Nov. 2, 2014 and waited for it to arrive.

It marked the anniversary of last year’s season-ending injury. Though it passed 10 days ago, the opponent it took place against just so happens to be next on the schedule. The second-ranked Florida State Seminoles visit Sun Life Stadium on Saturday night.

"I wouldn’t even say it’s bad memories," Johnson said after practice this week. "It’s part of the game. I think the injury last year actually made me a better player this year. I don’t look at it as a bad memory but a stepping-stone in my career and something I had to move forward from.

"Being mad and being upset not going to fix it, so I took the mindset of getting healthy, getting healed up and getting ready for next year."

After undergoing surgery on his fractured ankle last fall, Johnson did just that. He gained weight that has allowed him to stay durable and fresh. Although his average carries per game has gone from 18 in 2013 to 17.5 in 2014, his numbers are better.

As a sophomore, Johnson recorded just one multi-touchdown game, six total scores and three 100-plus yard games. This year, he has 11 total touchdowns (nine rushing) and five consecutive 100-yard rushing contests.

Offensive coordinator James Coley knew without a doubt that Johnson would come back stronger because of his "exceptional offseason."

"Just because of the work he put in," Coley said. "Sometimes you see guys who don’t work hard and wonder what it’s going to be like when he’s back. And then you see a guy who’s just relentlessly doing everything he can to be faster, quicker and stronger and you can tell by his weight gain that this guy’s ready to do it."

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Johnson approaches every game with the same mindset, but this one holds deeper meaning. Take away the personal angle of getting hurt in Tallahassee and there are still career implications.

A stellar performance against the rival Seminoles, who have won 25 in a row and four straight in the series, could garner him an invitation to next month’s Heisman ceremony.

The 5-foot-9, 206-pounder ranks eighth in the nation with 1,213 yards, but his 158 carries are the fewest among all Big 5 conference backs ahead of him. His 7.7 yards per run is the best and so is his 90-yard touchdown.

"I don’t really do it for the awards," Johnson said. "That’s not what I’m in it for. I have a bigger goal in my mind, in my life other than receiving awards. As a kid you always play the game and play college football (video games) and you’d want your player on the game to win the Heisman and be excited about it. Now that I’m older I realize that it really doesn’t mean much to me.

"Being invited would be a big accomplishment. It’ll be something that my mom and my family is more proud of than I am."

So how did an already talented player take the next step to eliteness this season? How does one set himself up for such an opportunity as the one available on Saturday?

Last offseason, Johnson worked with the receivers rather than the running backs to add that element to his game. Head coach Al Golden had told him at the beginning of the year he wanted him to get catches. In 2013, he tallied just four receptions for 77 yards. This year, he is second on the team with 21 catches for 273 yards and two touchdowns.

Johnson is the rare breed of a highly rated recruit living up to the expectations and even exceeding them.

Freshman quarterback Brad Kaaya watched film of Johnson’s high school and collegiate games prior to arriving on campus. He knew what to expect. Everything Johnson has done this season reinforces it.

"It’s a big difference on the field as opposed to on TV," Kaaya said. "When you see him just take off through a hole — woah."

With 252 more yards, Johnson will pass Ottis Anderson as the all-time leading rusher in program history (3,332).

His legacy is still being written. Saturday will be the next chapter. The stage is set with a primetime audience and undefeated opponent.

"Obviously he’s meant a lot to this program," senior wideout Phillip Dorsett said. "Duke came in freshman year and his first carry I knew — this kid’s going to be special. Even in high school I knew he was going to be special. He’s meant a lot to this program. He’s one of those guys that was just like me committed as soon as he got the offer, didn’t waver at all, so we knew he was going to be a big inspiration to this program."

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