HUNTINGTON — When Devon “Rockhead” Johnson returned to town Sunday from his final break before preseason camp, he learned Marshall coaches have a different plan — one that could be more painful to would-be tacklers.
Sporting his mean-looking No. 47, the 6-foot-1, 254-pound junior from Richlands, Va., is trying his hand at running back.
And shoulders. And biceps. You get the picture.
Yes, it could turn out that the recent departure of Kevin Grooms could turn the Thundering Herd backfield into a nastier, heavier position. As camp opened Monday, Johnson was in the backfield, taking handoffs from Rakeem Cato.
Johnson had the “aw, shucks, I’ll do anything” attitude about the move from tight end, which he said he learned about Sunday. Others were pumped up, including Cato.
“You know that he can do so many great things with the ball in his hands,” Cato said after Monday’s afternoon workout. “Just having him in the backfield, getting him touches, getting him reps, you never know what will happen. I’m looking forward to it. It’s a great move.”
As a true freshman in 2012, Johnson caught three passes for 21 yards and a touchdown against Memphis. He was moved to linebacker, but found himself back on offense by last fall, where he scored three short-yardage rushing touchdowns and two more receiving scores. His highlight was a 52-yard TD catch and run in the Herd’s 59-28 demolition of East Carolina.
Coming out of spring, Marshall found itself a bit heavy at tight end with Eric Frohnapfel, Johnson and Deon-Tay McManus. Freshman Ryan Yurachek is a newcomer this fall, and junior Joe Woodrum is a seasoned walk-on.
Johnson would get plays, yes, but how many? Face it: It’s tough to leave a 250-pound veteran who can run on the bench.
So with that, the speedier Steward Butler — or whoever — may have a big running mate.
Herd coaches have shown they’re not scared to go against conventional wisdom in the single-back attack. Remember, Essray Taliaferro, the walk-on who refused to go away, rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year.
A large part of that was Taliaferro’s ability in pass blocking, far better than Butler and Grooms. Johnson has already proved to be a demoralizing head-on runner; how much punishment can he deliver to a fast-moving blitzer?
Cato likes the thought.
“That’s the great part … he’s been a blocker, and he loves to hit,” Cato said.
It’s still early in the month and players worked in shorts on Monday. In the upcoming days, Holliday wants to see what Tony Pittman and Brandon Byrd can accomplish, and wants to see where Butler and Remi Watson stand.
But you can tell Holliday is intrigued.
“He’s a tremendous athlete. He was a tailback in high school. I know he’s a load. He’s a great kid, extremely tough. He likes to play, and that’s where it starts,” Holliday said. “You need a complete back in there with what we do in throwing the football. Not that those other guys can’t do it, they can, but he can protect, he does a great job of catching the ball out of the backfield and as a tight end, and he’s good with the ball in his hands.
“We’ll see how it goes. You can’t tell anything with shorts on, but you’ve seen enough of him to know he’s a good football player. I think the important thing for us, too, is to get our best 11 people on the field.”
Johnson will go along.
“It’s nice,” he said. “I’ve just got to get the rust off a little bit, but other than that, everything’s nice. I like tight end, I like running back, whatever I can help the team win, I’ll do.”
Reach Doug Smock at email@example.com, 304-348-5130 or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.