With a sense of déj√† 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.
Other Impact True Freshmen
STEFON DIGGS WR, MARYLAND
The five-star receiver from Olney, Md., made the Terps wait more than a week after signing day for his signature but wasted no time notching his first 100-yard game, which came on Sept. 22 against West Virginia.
DEVONTE FIELDS DE, TCU
The Horned Frogs' move to the Big 12 helped the team lure four-star recruit Fields from nearby Arlington, and he's paying immediate dividends. A starter from Week 1, he leads the Horned Frogs in tackles for loss (8½) and sacks (five).
SIMON GOINES OT, UCLA
A 6'7", 324-pound Keller, Texas, native who originally committed to the Missouri Tigers, Goines has started all four games on the right end of the line for a Bruins offense currently averaging 243.4 yards on the ground.
TODD GURLEY RB, GEORGIA
A Tarboro, N.C., native, Gurley produced a 100-yard kick return and a 55-yard rushing touchdown in his debut against Buffalo. Filling the void left by Isaiah Crowell's dismissal from the team, Gurley leads the Dawgs with 107.2 yards per game.
SHAQ THOMPSON CB, WASHINGTON
As the starting nickelback, Thompson's 20 tackles rank third for the Huskies' much-improved defense. Originally from Sacramento, he returned home last week and had seven tackles (including one for a loss) in a 17--13 upset of No. 8 Stanford.
JAIME WILSON WR, WESTERN MICHIGAN
The Belle Glade, Fla., native has made the most of his move north. He's third in the nation with 47 receptions and 10th in yards, with 533, including 100-yard games against Minnesota and Connecticut.
T.J. YELDON RB, ALABAMA
The local kid from Daphne, Ala., Rivals.com's No. 2 running back last year, has emerged as the second-leading rusher on the nation's No. 1 team, with 292 yards. He's the first Crimson Tide true freshman to rush for more than 100 yards (111) in his college debut.
Another week, another "wow" performance for West Virginia's Geno Smith. He's threatening to run away from the competition, although it's still early and the Big 12's better defenses lie ahead, including a trip to quietly surging Texas and a game at home against TCU in November.
Photograph by BILL FRAKES
FAST STARTER Johnson, who has been timed at 4.39 in the 40, has made the most of his limited opportunities.
MARK GOLDMAN/ICON SMI (DIGGS)
JEROME MIRON/US PRESSWIRE (FIELDS)
ARMANDO BROWN/THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER/ZUMAPRESS.COM (GOINES)
AL TIELEMANS (GURLEY)
AL TIELEMANS (YELDON)
JESSE BEALS/ICON SMI (THOMPSON)
MARILYN INDAHL/US PRESSWIRE (WILSON)
REY DEL RIO/ZUMAPRESS.COM (MILLER)