Matt Rhule has made it clear how much he values speed and targets track athletes in recruiting. One player who could benefit from that emphasis is is veteran running back Rahmir Johnson.
Now heading into his fifth year at Nebraska, Johnson was a standout track athlete at Bergen Catholic High School in New Jersey who excelled at sprints.
“To play football, you’ve got to be fast, strong and competitive, and I’ll say I’m all of those things,” Johnson said on Tuesday. “I’m the kind of guy they like to recruit … If you’re fast, you can pretty much do anything. You can get by defenders. You can’t teach speed and you can’t beat speed.”
Johnson has had a roller coaster of career thus far.
He redshirted his first season, playing in four games and gaining 64 yards on 21 carries with a touchdown and one reception for 12 yards. He played in six games in 2020, carrying the ball eight times for 30 yards and another score while catching six passes for 33 yards.
Johnson broke out in 2021, leading Nebraska’s running backs with 112 carries for 495 yards and four touchdowns with 16 receptions for 197 yards and two more scores.
Last year, Johnson played in 10 games but saw most of his action on special teams as he ran the ball 19 times for 85 yards and caught just one pass for 7 yards despite the coaches talking about the “wideback” hybrid rushing/receiving role he would play. Johnson said he was healthy but never really saw a solidified role materialize on offense.
“I don’t have the right answer for you,” Johnson said. “I just know I worked hard all year, I was available and things happened. It is what it is, but I’m here now and looking forward to the season and getting ready to work for this team and this coaching staff.”
This coaching staff includes new running backs coach E.J. Barthel, though he wasn’t completely new to Johnson. Barthel is also a New Jersey native who began his college career at Rutgers before finishing at UMass. Before getting into coaching, Barthel ran a gym in New Jersey named Explosive Training Systems from 2009 to 2014, training many of the state’s top high school football players. He then began his college coaching career at Rutgers in the football operations and recruiting departments before making stops at Temple, Penn State and many others.
“My freshman year in high school he was coaching there for a little bit before he got the college coaching job,” Johnson said. “So I knew him for a little bit, and then he was recruiting me at other colleges and stuff like that. So I’m very familiar with him …
“He’s very energetic, very charismatic. He’s involved with everybody in the group, no matter if you’re a walk-on, scholarship, no matter what you did last year, he’s involved with everybody. He makes sure everyone’s getting involved.”
Johnson is one of many players looking to take advantage of a fresh start under the new staff and said he’s enjoyed the last few months learning about and working under Rhule and his coaches.
“I love it, we all love it,” Johnson said. “This coaching staff — high intensity, very knowledgeable and I’m just looking forward to working with these guys, honestly. I’m looking forward to the season and just keep getting better day by day.”
Johnson has certainly caught Rhule’s eye through the first week or so practices.
“I think if you go back two years ago you see Rahmir as, really, a productive player,” Rhule said. “I’ve been really, really happy with him. I’ve been happy with him all offseason. But I think he’s had a really, really good camp. I don’t know what period it was, maybe the the first play, I think he had like a 60-yard run the other day. I think the main thing with Rahmir is he’s quiet. Christian McCaffery used to say to me the best players play loud. Rahmir, so far, is playing loud.
“An excellent outside zone runner, running with power, picks up blitzes, can run all of our — our halfback passing game, there are a lot of option routes, a lot of things that require some depth and he’s picking it up really well. Really coachable and an excellent guy throughout the program. I think if you talk to anybody, everyone likes him. I’m really happy with him; I think he has a ton of roles. Today we had a couple receivers down and I said ‘Hey, be ready to go out and play in the sot.’ I think he’s a guy who can do all of that.”
Johnson has plenty of experience running receiver drills after his 2022 season spent as a “wideback” and had no problem shifting positions on Tuesday to help with the numbers.
“I want to do it all,” Johnson said. “Whatever gets me on the field, that’s what I want to do.”
Johnson is part of a deep running back room featuring four scholarship players who have logged carries at Nebraska, Emmett Johnson who redshirted last season and a handful of walk-ons. So far, Rhule said he’s liked what he’s seen from that group.
“I don’t know what the rest of the Big Ten running back rooms like like, but we’ve got a pretty good running back room,” Rhule said. “Gabe Ervin’s doing some really, really, really, really powerful, good things. Ajay Allen’s hitting some big, big runs. So we have a good running back room.”
Johnson’s 2022 season didn’t go the way he was hoping, but it’s in the past now and he has his sights set on carving out a role come the fall.
“Life is life,” Johnson said. “Adversity is going to hit, you’ve just got to learn how to overcome it and just go from there. I can’t dwell on the past, I’ve got to look forward. So that’s what I’m thinking.”
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.