Scott Frost admitted it. He used to get frustrated with Rahmir Johnson.
The third-year redshirt freshman running back from New Jersey has speed, but he didn’t use it all the time. Didn’t always run hard. Because of that, Johnson was buried on the depth chart at the start of fall camp. He was about fifth on the list, Frost said.
“Everything wasn’t 100% all the time. There’s only one way to play this game and that’s with everything you’ve got,” Frost said. “Sometimes when you come in young, you dip your toe in the water a little bit instead of just letting it rip.”
Instead of hitting reset and transferring, Johnson stuck with it. He started to work on his game and mindset. Wideout Levi Falck, who caught a touchdown pass against Michigan, saw the change with Johnson firsthand.
“He’s got the veteran mindset where he comes to work every day,” Falck said. “He’s a back who can do it all. He can catch balls, he can make people miss, he runs hard. It’s been nice having him be that leader in the room.”
Johnson didn’t have more than five carries and 19 yards rushing in a game this season until fans surprisingly saw him starting at Oklahoma. He ended his day against the Sooners with 11 carries for 42 yards, nothing eye-opening. But he also showed he can be a threat in the passing game, catching three passes for 48 yards, including a key first-down catch on fourth down on the first drive.
“He’s learned how to play as hard as he can,” Frost said Monday, two days after Johnson rushed for 67 yards and caught six passes for 105 and one touchdown against Michigan.
Nebraska’s running back rotation had been all over the place earlier in the season, but has tightened up as of late. The coaches say they’ll play whoever does the best at practice each week. But with true freshman Gabe Ervin Jr. out for the season with a knee injury, Johnson seems to have used the opportunity to his benefit.
“I’ve been saying all along we’ve been waiting for somebody to step up and kind of take it. He’s taking advantage of chances, I think he’s running hard and making plays in the pass game,” Frost said. “We certainly need other guys to keep improving and give him some break. But I’m really happy for Rahmir and how far he’s come. When you’re patient with some people, sometimes they continue to improve and become good players.”
In the past three games, Johnson has gotten 12 or more rushing attempts and has shown surprisingly tough running between the tackles for a 5-foot-10, 185-pounder. That toughness not only comes into play on runs being blocked by a re-tooled offensive line that has had its ups and downs creating running lanes, but on pass plays, too. His offensive coordinator has noticed.
“I love the way he’s playing, and he’s shown that he can make all the down-hill, between-the-tackle runs,” Nebraska OC Matt Lubick said. “I think he had 100 yards receiving in the last game, so he’s done a really good job catching the football, which allows us to do a lot of different things. He does a good job of stepping up and he’s not afraid of taking on a linebacker and knows who he’s blocking. He’s really playing as a complete back.”
The next step for Johnson will be to crack the 100-yard rushing mark, which he hasn’t done yet. Nebraska’s run game with quarterback Adrian Martinez naturally takes some carries away, but there’s only been two 100-yard outings from Husker running backs this season—Markese Steep against Fordham (101 yards) and Jaquez Yant against Northwestern (127).
Will it happen for Johnson at Minnesota? After looking at the numbers, it might be tough to accomplish.
The Gophers have the second-best run defense in the Big Ten, as they’re holding opponents to an average of just 77 yards per game. The only defense better at stopping the run so far? Wisconsin, a program that eats, sleeps and dreams about stopping runs. Minnesota’s defense hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since week one against Ohio State when Miyan Williams gained 125 yards, and that included a 71-yarder.