MSU’s Shawn Johnson is more than a burner

By Bill Lamberty
Montana State

BOZEMAN — To Shawn Johnson, the difference between being ‘a’ running back and ‘the’ running back is more than just a few letters, far more significant than mere semantics.

“Oh, yeah, it definitely is,” Johnson said with a broad smile when asked if it feels different to enter a season as Montana State’s starting running back. “In our first practice I was asking (running backs coach Michael Pitre), ‘Am I in? Am I in?’ He was, ‘Yeah, you’re in, you’re no. one.’ It was different, but I’m getting used to it and trying to bring everything to the table because it’s my senior year. We’re trying to win the Big Sky.”

Understandably, Johnson takes nothing for granted relating to his spot on the Bobcat depth chart after spending his first three seasons in the program battling for scraps of playing time with Cody Kirk, Orenzo Davis, and Tray Robinson. Since Johnson’s entry into the Bobcat program, those three productive veterans combined to compile more than 4,700 yards rushing while dominating most of the reps at tailback.

Bobcat head coach Rob Ash has noticed a difference in Johnson’s demeanor. “Shawn is very excited about being the guy,” Ash said. “Some of these guys that have been ahead of him – not just Cody, but Tray and Orenzo – have finally graduated. We’ve had some running backs ahead of him that were pretty good. He is really, really excited about his senior season.”

Johnson hasn’t exactly been wasting away in the interim. He made himself valuable as a return specialist early in his career, and even his production at running back has accelerated in a way that mirrors one of his own spectacular kick returns. The Bakersfield, Calif., product rushed for 59 yards as a true freshman in 2011 without catching a pass, gained 176 yards rushing and 155 yards receiving in 2012, and last fall rushed for 609 yards while grabbing 243 yards of passing.

As a returner, though, Johnson has starred from the beginning. He gained 477 yards on kick and punt returns combined as a true freshman, 551 yards as a sophomore, and in spectacular fashion 905 yards last fall. In returning two kickoffs and a punt for touchdowns last fall, he rocketed to All-America status, and enters his senior season widely recognized as one of the top two or three returners in the nation.

Johnson professes love for returning kicks and punts, and knows that may be his ticket to a professional football career. “I’m not thinking about it right now, but if I get a chance to play at the next level returning will be my thing,” he says matter-of-factly.

But for now his entire focus is on finishing his career in the Blue and Gold with a flourish. MSU offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey said it’s impossible to miss how Johnson has looked in the early days of fall camp.

“Fast,” Cramsey says emphatically. “He looks good, he looks good running. It’s great to have him back.”

Johnson attributes part of his mercurial presence to his physical shape, and strength and conditioning coach Alex Willcox’s off-season training regimen. “Our conditioning from Coach Willcox (helps me play) even faster.”

But part of Johnson’s speedy play at the running back position comes from familiarity with Cramsey’s offensive scheme, now in its second season. “I don’t think it seems different at all, it’s the same scheme, the zone read, the same things that we were doing last year,” Johnson said. “But it’s a fast offense, and we’re picking it up faster.”

Johnson’s 2013 honors came as a return specialist and were well-earned, but even in an offense featuring Cody Kirk’s bruising presence in the ground game and the program’s most productive receiver ever in Tanner Bleskin, Johnson was able to contribute 609 yards rushing and 243 yards passing in 2013. The 852 yards of the team’s 5,023 yards on scrimmage plays accounted for 17% of the team’s total offensive output.

Still, Johnson carries the tag of “speed guy,” a freighted phrase which implies he is not able to gain tough yards between the tackles, therefore limiting him to a niche or specialty role.

Cramsey isn’t buying it. “I think sometimes he gets a bad rep because he’s fast, a speed guy, he gets the rep that he’s not a physical runner,” he said. “Shawn’s a physical runner, he‘s a tough kid. He can be an every-down back for us.” Ash adds that if appearances early in fall camp matter, Johnson should have no issues adapting to that role. “He’s a little thicker,” Ash said. “He looks bigger, and stronger. But he’s still fast.”

Johnson knows the whispers are there. “There’s doubters that don’t think I can do that,” he said of running between the tackles in obvious run situations, “but I do everything that I can to run behind my pads, run hard, use my power as much as I can.”

While Cramsey insists the power element is part of Johnson’s game, he to a large degree has built MSU’s 2014 offensive scheme around the senior’s speed. “You can use him in a lot of ways,” Cramsey said. “We’re going to be able to move him around, and we’re giving him credit to be able to do that mentally and athletically. With the (running backs) we have, using him in different spots lets us use the other guys, as well.”

Johnson continues to relish his role as a returner – “It’s great” to break into the open on a return, he said, adding with a laugh that “anybody would love just running past people” – but according to his head coach is even more pleased to have earned the right to accept handoffs. “Shawn loves returns,” Ash says, “but he has always wanted to be the tailback. That’s been his goal.”



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