With a sense of déjà vu, Daryle Heidelburg watched Miami freshman Randy (Duke) Johnson break a 54-yard touchdown run on a counter play in the Hurricanes' season-opening win against Boston College. "It was like he was in high school again," says Heidelburg, Johnson's coach at Miami Norland, "because that's one of the plays we ran with him all the time. I've watched him grow up. I expect him to break it."
Johnson, a consensus five-star recruit who ran for 2,087 yards on Norland's 2011 state championship team, is the best of an unusually large number of true freshmen who have transformed their programs. Against BC, Johnson would bust out for another long touchdown—a 56-yarder on a toss around the right side that caused even LeBron James to take notice ("Duke Johnson is the truth out there for the U! True freshman," tweeted the King)—and entering Week 6, Johnson was fifth in the nation in all-purpose yardage (209.5 yards per game). At his current pace he'd shatter Canes record holder Willis McGahee's 2,108-all-purpose-yard season of 2002. He has four 50-plus-yard touchdowns, one fewer than Miami had all of last season, and has scored touchdowns as a rusher, receiver and kick returner. "I honestly thought Duke could do at Miami [as a freshman] what De'Anthony Thomas did at Oregon, and that's exactly what he's doing," said Scout.com recruiting analyst Jamie Newberg.
When Heidelburg arrived at Norland before Johnson's sophomore season, the then 5'8", 155-pound cornerback had to ask for a shot on offense. "I was like, You don't look like a running back. You're kind of small and weak," says the coach. "But the first day of practice, after a couple of moves, it was like, O.K.—I'm impressed." Johnson has grown to 5'9", 188 pounds, but some analysts doubted whether the diminutive player could withstand the toll of playing running back in college. Miami's coaches, however, planned to use Johnson in a way that would keep him off the field for more than half of the Canes' offensive snaps but still leverage his skills, which were desperately needed with the departures of Lamar Miller (1,272 rushing yards last season) and receivers Tommy Streeter and Travis Benjamin. Within Miami's standard pro-style sets, Johnson will line up from fullback to tailback to slot receiver in order to create mismatches that allow him to use his speed and receiving skills to get the most out of every touch.
Johnson is one of four true-freshmen starters for the rebuilding Canes. After committing to the U more than two years ago, Duke (the nickname was also his great-grandfather's) stuck with his hometown school through a coaching change (Al Golden replaced Randy Shannon in '10), a pair of mediocre seasons (7--6 in 2010 and 6--6 in '11) and an ongoing NCAA investigation into the program's relationship with convicted Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro, who claims he spent nearly a decade showering Miami players with extra benefits. Johnson then helped recruit several of his most highly touted classmates, most notably starting safety Deon Bush. "Once he got his offer, he ran around buying everything UM—UM posters, a UM book bag," says Heidelburg. Now he's running around defenders.