HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Marshall football coach Doc Holliday would have loved the ability to sit before reporters Saturday night and say he knew all along that running back Devon Johnson was capable of such record-setting performances.
He would have loved to say that, in moving Johnson from tight end to tailback on the eve of preseason camp, he predicted the junior would be one of the nation’s most prolific ballcarriers.
“For me to say I was going to move him to tailback and get the production we’ve gotten out of him, I didn’t think that,” Holliday admitted.
Here’s what Holliday can say: The player he trusted to be the Thundering Herd’s featured back is now the owner of Marshall’s single-game rushing record and the catalyst for the team’s 35-16 win against Florida Atlantic.
— Doc Holliday, Marshall coach
Johnson scored four of Marshall’s five touchdowns on runs of 58, 62, 66 and 7 yards, and in the process ran for 272 yards on just 24 carries. The previous record-holder, Ron Darby, rushed for 262 yards against Western Carolina on Nov. 12, 1988, and needed 47 carries to do it.
As he has with every accolade he’s earned this season, Johnson immediately credited Marshall’s offensive line.
“It’s their record,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t have done it without them. It starts up front. They hold that record, not me.”
Johnson had huge holes through which to run against the Owls and barely was touched, if at all, on any of his scoring plays. He averaged 11.3 yards per carry versus FAU (3-5, 2-2 Conference USA), second this season only to his 13 yards per carry against Florida International. He reached that mark despite spending several minutes in the second quarter on the sideline with trainers working on his knees. They fitted sleeves on both his knees and he went to the locker room early for halftime.
He shrugged off those issues, returned to the game in the second half and more than doubled his workload, carrying 17 times after just seven in the first half. He gained 123 yards in the final two quarters and scored a pair of touchdowns that put the game away.
“I think it’s just a tribute to his focus,” Herd running backs coach Chris Barclay said. “He started fast, then we had a little lull and had some issues moving the football. I told him, ‘Kiddo, hey, it’s a long game. It’s not about one play or two plays. It’s a series of plays. Just stay patient and stay with your coaching. Have good eye discipline.’ And it was just a tribute to his hard work and focus.”
Johnson now is second in the Football Bowl Subdivision behind Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah in total rushing yards with 1,203. Marshall (8-0, 4-0 Conference USA) believes Johnson is the fastest Herd player to 1,000 yards in a season in just eight games. He’s fourth in the FBS in rushing yards per game (150.4), yards per carry (8.78) and rushing touchdowns (15), despite not playing tailback since his senior year at Richlands High School in Virginia.
The 6-foot-1, 243-pound Johnson has floated from fullback to linebacker to tight end in his Herd career and the breakneck pace of his ascension has surprised everyone. Johnson didn’t expect it. He figured he’d serve as quarterback Rakeem Cato’s backfield bodyguard during Cato’s assault on the Marshall record books.
“I just got back there and I was going to protect Cato,” Johnson said. “That’s the main goal, to just do what I have to do to make sure the team gets the win.”
Barclay didn’t expect it, either, but he’s having a blast watching it.
“It’s awesome,” Barclay said. “We’re just watching him grow every game. He’s becoming a better player every game. The more snaps he gets, the more carries he gets, he’s getting a better understanding of the position and just how everything works together.”