A two-year starter at Auburn, Johnson showed promise as a sophomore before emerging as the bellcow runner for the Tigers in 2017 and one of the best backs in college football. His 115.9 rushing yards per game as a junior ranked ninth-best among power-five programs and his 18 touchdowns was more than 46 FBS teams.
Based on first glance, Johnson doesn’t blow you away as a NFL prospect because of his tall pads and average speed, but he skillfully walks the fine line between being patient and quick-minded as a runner, making correct reads and maximizing the space available.
While he was rarely 100% healthy at Auburn, he never gave less than 100% effort when on the field and his trademark toughness is exceptional. However, he didn’t have an injury-free season in college and sustained health is the largest concern for his NFL transition.
A four-star running back recruit out of high school, Johnson rushed for 5,274 yards over his career at Madison Academy, helping lead the Mustangs to three straight state titles (37-1 record). He was named Alabama’s Mr. Football and the Gatorade Alabama player of the year as a senior, collecting scholarship offers from every major program in the south. Johnson grew up a Florida State fan and showed plenty of interest in nearby Alabama, but it was a connection he felt at Auburn that led him to the Plains.
Johnson joined a crowded backfield in 2015 and was used primarily as a receiving back on third downs, finishing third on the team in rushing with 208 yards on 52 carries and three scores. As a sophomore, he shared the starting running back duties with Kamryn Pettway and finished second on the team with 895 rushing yards and a team-best 11 rushing scores.
Johnson became Auburn’s feature runner as a junior in 2017 (12 starts) and led the SEC in rushing yards (1,391) and rushing touchdowns (18), despite missing a pair of games due to injury. He was named First Team All-SEC and SEC Offensive Player of the Year, finishing ninth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Elite patience and timing, allowing blocks to develop. Widescreen vision and feels developing run lanes. Excellent spatial awareness and understands how to maximize running angles. Quick decision-maker. Flexible joints and keeps his balance well to work off tackle attempts. Lateral movement skills to create off-balance tackle attempts. Long strides to accelerate once he finds a sliver of daylight. Strong foundation as a runner. Drives his legs and uses a violent stiff arm to punish defenders, making it a chore to bring him down. Workhorse mentality and averaged 25.8 offensive touches per game in 2017. Natural ball skills as a receiver, recording 55 catches (fifth-best among running backs in Auburn history) for 478 yards and two scores over his career. Not shy giving up his body in pass protection. Used as the primary kickoff returner his first two seasons at Auburn, averaging 25.1 yards per return (26/653/0). Competes with the warrior toughness desired for the position – won’t voluntarily come off the field and does a great job tolerating pain (his father, Kerry, is an athletic trainer). Multiple SEC Honor Roll recipient and takes care of his business off the field. Finished his career ranked top-10 in Auburn history with 3,625 all-purpose yards. – Dane Brugler 1/3/2018
High cut and long-legged. Runs erect and doesn’t consistently drop his hips to generate burst. Not the most graceful runner in tight spaces. Doesn’t consistently lower his pads, exposing his body and the ball. Holds the ball loose and needs to improve his security (despite only three fumbles at Auburn). Lean-muscled for the position. Lack of secondary speed limits his big play potential (only three runs of 30+ yards in 2017). Gets in trouble when he catches in pass protection and needs to improve his blocking mechanics. Durability will be questioned due to his physical run style and a laundry list of injuries – left the Alabama game (Nov. 2017) due to injuries to his ribs and right shoulder; missed two games as a junior with a hamstring injury (Sept. 2017); missed playing time as a sophomore due to a “severely” sprained right ankle (Oct. 2016); collected numerous injuries in high school, including a separate left shoulder, surgically repaired right shoulder, sprained MCL and broken thumb. – Dane Brugler 1/3/2018
COMPARES TO: Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears – While Johnson is a leaner version, he has the toughness and skill-set that resembles the Bears’ workhorse, who has rushed for 1,100+ rushing yards in each of his first two NFL seasons.
IN OUR VIEW: While the long-term health concerns are worrisome, Johnson has the patience, pacing and feel as a ball carrier to eat away at defenses. His win-at-all-cost attitude and multi-dimensional skills will endear him to NFL coaches and allow him to be a valuable piece of a NFL offense.