HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Devon Johnson has been a football vagabond during his Marshall football tenure.
He’s dabbled at fullback, moved to linebacker and showed promise at tight end. Now he’s at the position that made him a high-school standout and a Thundering Herd scholarship player — tailback. He’s already worked his way into the first team, and said the versatility in learning so many positions had something to do with that.
Johnson returned to campus at the start of August ready to battle Eric Frohnapfel for the starting tight end job. He averaged 18.2 yards on 12 catches with two touchdowns last season, so he had a pretty good shot. Then he got the news the day before preseason camp began that Herd coaches needed him at tailback.
The junior had never been one to turn down a coach’s request before. After all, he already had changed positions twice in two years. And its not that he wasn’t experienced as a team’s primary ball-carrier. The Richlands (Va.) High School graduate rushed for 4,340 yards and 63 touchdowns in his prep career and was a two-time first-team all-state pick.
And it’s not like he hasn’t carried the ball at Marshall before. Coaches installed a goal-line package they dubbed “Big Cheese,” with Johnson at tailback and 299-pound guard Blake Brooks at fullback. Johnson scored three rushing touchdowns in 2013. This time, though, there would be no special formation. Johnson would get the ball early and often.
His bouncing around the roster gave him the confidence to change jobs yet again.
“You’re a veteran,” Johnson said. “I’ve learned you can’t sit there and think too much. (The coach is) telling you what to do. Just get it in your head, go over it a couple of times, don’t think about it anymore, then get out here and play football.”
Running backs coach Chris Barclay said Johnson has been a quick study, evident in his sprint up the depth chart. The former ACC player of year at Wake Forest lauds the power in Johnson’s 6-foot-1, 243-pound frame and the deceptive speed that comes with it. Yet his most important trait this preseason has been his willingness to learn.
“He’s a very coachable kid,” Barclay said. “He’s a humble kid and he’s always looking for ways to get better. You can work with a kid like that because they’re always hungry for knowledge. He’s one of the guys who always sticks around and asks extra questions and wants to watch extra film. With a kid like that, the learning process is accelerated.
“I told him the other day that he’s only been in the position a few days, but he’s playing like he’s been there for a couple of years,” Barclay added. “He’s a guy who you can tell him one time, and it gets done.”
That’s not to say his size isn’t important. He’s Marshall’s heaviest running back by nearly 40 pounds. Freshman Tony Pittman is closest at 204 pounds. Johnson doesn’t shy away from contact. Sometimes he invites it.
“There are going to be some plays where there won’t be any holes and you won’t have anywhere to go, and all you can do is just put your head down and go,” he said. “That’s when it comes in handy, when you need the extra yardage and I’m going to be able to get it.”
His new spot on the depth chart was earned partially by his willingness to block. On the first day of preseason practice, head coach Doc Holliday said Johnson’s move came because he wanted someone he could trust to block for former Conference USA MVP quarterback Rakeem Cato. Johnson knows that, before the carries or the rushing touchdowns, keeping defenders away from Cato is his mission.
“If No. 12 ain’t safe, I didn’t do my job,” he said. “I’m back there to keep him safe while he’s passing.”
He also gives opposing defenses a completely different look than the rest of Marshall’s running backs. The vast majority of them are lighter, quick, shifty runners. Those defenses must still deal with the likes of Steward Butler and Remi Watson, but they’ll also face Johnson’s battering-ram style.
Marshall linebacker Neville Hewitt said his group already sees the benefits to facing Johnson every day in practice.
“I just want to thank the coaches for putting a guy like that back there,” Hewitt said, “so when we play against teams that run the ball with bigger backs, we’ve already seen someone who can run hard like that.”
Johnson is just happy he can help the team in whatever role he can play. And if the team needs him somewhere else, all the coaches have to do is ask.
“Now they might as well stick me out at wide receiver, too,” he said with a smile, “so I can learn that one.”
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THOUGH HE now officially holds the title of Marshall’s back-up quarterback, not much will change in the way redshirt sophomore Gunnar Holcombe approaches his job. He might have won the competition over true freshman Cole Garvin, but he doesn’t think the competition is over.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s still got to be a lot of work,” Holcombe said. “If I get complacent, I could be benched right away. I just have to keep working to get better and pushing (Rakeem) Cato in front of me so he can reach his potential.”
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MARSHALL OFFICIALLY added a new player to the roster Tuesday, former Maryland linebacker Shawn Petty. The 6-foot-1, 235-pound Greenbelt, Md., native registered 24 tackles, four for a loss and two sacks as a Terrapins reserve last season. Two seasons ago, he had to step in at quarterback for the final four games of the season. He will sit this season as a transfer and have two to play.
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.