10/12/07 — Pirates' Johnson taking charge

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Pirates' Johnson taking charge

By Andrew Stevens
Published in Sports on October 12, 2007 3:23 PM

GREENVILLE — Not long after the 2007 NFL draft, East Carolina senior running back Chris Johnson received an unexpected phone call.

The voice on the other end told him, “We’re looking forward to seeing you get drafted next year.”

That voice belonged to Pirates head coach Skip Holtz.

Knowing Holtz believed he had NFL and with last year's leading rusher Brandon Fractious and top-receiver Aundre Allison both gone, Johnson set some pretty lofty goals for himself this season.

The Orlando native aspired to accumulate 2,000 all-purpose yards, 25 touchdowns and average five yards per carry. Those are pretty high aspirations for a guy whot tallied just 972 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns a year ago.

“I felt I had to set my goals that high to become a high draft pick,” Johnson said. “I’ve been working hard in the offseason. When Coach Holtz called me, I knew basically that they were putting the team on my back.”

Thus far, Johnson hasn't disappointed himself — nor the Pirate Nation. He set a new school single-game record for all-purpose yards with 372 in the Pirates’ 52-38 comeback win over Central Florida last weekend. Johnson returned the second-half opening kickoff 96 yards, sparking a 28-point, third-quarter outburst by ECU.

The 96-yard return matched a career high for Johnson, who has already racked up more return yards, 533 in 17 tries, than the 482 yards he had in 21 returns a year ago.

His performance against UCF earned him Conference USA Special Teams Player-of-the-Week honors.

“The whole kickoff return team — they’ve been blocking real good,” Johnson said. “On that play...once I got through, there was just one man...and Dominique Lindsay, he came up and got the last block. I was able to cut it back, and it was a wrap after that.”

Johnson also added a pair of rushing touchdowns and took a screen-pass 72 yards for a score against UCF.

“I didn't expect that,” Johnson said of his record-setting game on Saturday. “I just knew I had to go out and play hard and let the game come to me. “I didn’t really think about it because I had to go out there and take it one play at a time and try and do what I had already done.

“UCF could have come back and most of the time we weren’t even winning. I had to take it one play at a time and celebrate at the end of the game.”

Two weeks ago at Houston, Johnson rumbled for 153 yards and two scores, including a touchdown run of 43 yards — his longest rush of the season.

“I can’t say enough positive things about Chris Johnson,” Holtz said. “He is really becoming a complete player. It has been nice seeing him develop as a player and a person. He has gained weight and confidence. Everything is starting to slow down for him and he is making cuts that he hasn't made in the past.”

If things on the field are slowing down for Johnson, it’s starting to show. In 2006, He managed to gain just 314 yards on 78 carries, including four touchdowns. Already in 2007, he's gained 404 yards on just 42 carries, just over half as many rushes than he had season ago. Not to mention his seven rushing touchdowns.

The running game isn't the only aspect of the Pirates offense where Johnson has been a contributor. He’s hauled in 20 passes for 291 yards, good for almost 15 yards a reception, and he's found the endzone four times already — numbers that are all up from the 2006 campaign. Johnson is one of just nine Pirates to have 100 or more career receptions.

“I just keep playing hard and trying to stay focused,” Johnson said. “Before every game, (running backs coach) Junior Smith, he tells me, ‘You have the talent to be a first round draft pick. Don’t try to go out there and do unnecessary stuff that you don't need to do. Just let the game come to you.”

With 1,228 all-purpose yards and 12 touchdowns to his credit, the game certainly seems to be coming to Johnson this season. He’s helped the Pirates (3-3,2-1 C-USA) stake their claim to sole possession of first place in the CUSA East, and they have their eyes on the conference title game and a possible bowl berth.

“I feel the coaches really believe in me,” Johnson said. “Last year, we had so many playmakers. This year, they really came to me and they wanted me to put the team on my back. I feel they really believe in me.”

At the rate Johnson has been going, the Pirates have had plenty to believe in.