CORAL GABLES, Fla. — Duke Johnson remained committed to Miami even as an NCAA investigation loomed as a threat to the program, made an immediate splash in his Hurricane debut and spent three seasons rewriting the school’s record book.
All that remains on his collegiate to-do list is a degree, and that’ll get done — eventually.
Making official the decision that had been expected for months, Johnson announced Sunday he is skipping his senior season of eligibility with the Hurricanes and entering next year’s NFL draft after a career in which he broke or tied at least 11 major Miami records.
“The value for running backs isn’t that high,” said Johnson, a 5-foot-9 running back who finished with 1,652 yards this season. “I think it’s best to get out when I can.”
There was a significance to the date of Johnson’s announcement — it was his mother’s birthday. Johnson often says he plays football with the hopes of being able to one day provide for Cassandra Prophet-Mitchell and his family, and now those days are closer than ever.
Some draft experts say Johnson could be a second-round selection.
Johnson rushed for 135 yards in his first college game and was an immediate star, finishing his Miami career with 3,519 yards in 33 outings. He leaves the Hurricanes as the school’s all-time record holder in rushing yards, yards per carry and all-purpose yards, as well as Miami’s leader in kick returns for a game, a season and a career.
He also tied school records with 14 games of at least 100 yards rushing, six straight 100-yard games, a 90-yard run from scrimmage and two kickoff return touchdowns.
Johnson is one of several key departing Hurricanes, that list including linebacker Denzel Perryman, tight end Clive Walford, wide receiver Phillip Dorsett and offensive linemen Jon Feliciano and Shane McDermott. Junior left tackle Ereck Flowers has not announced his plans for 2015.
Sophomore-to-be Joe Yearby figures to take over as the featured back, after running for 509 yards this year.
“One of the reasons I came to Miami was to play with Duke,” said Yearby who, like Johnson, is a Miami-area native. “And I learned a lot from him about how to be great.”
The Hurricanes were 20-13 in games when Johnson played, and he fell short of one significant goal — bringing Miami back to some sort of championship level.
Miami and Johnson would have played in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game in 2012 if not for a second consecutive year of self-imposed sanctions brought on by the incredibly long NCAA investigation into the actions of a rogue former booster.
But officially, Miami won nothing in Johnson’s tenure, not even a bowl game.
Saturday’s 24-21 loss to South Carolina in the Independence Bowl was Johnson’s first and last college postseason appearance. He missed Miami’s bowl loss to Louisville in 2013 with a broken ankle.
Miami players and coaches had known the decision was coming for several weeks, with quarterback Brad Kaaya notably describing Johnson as “a last-year guy” back on Nov. 24.
No one corrected Kaaya, with good reason. Johnson’s time to try the pro game has clearly come.
“If he stayed,” Miami backup quarterback Ryan Williams said, “he’d only be breaking his own records.”