Titans’ roll of dice on Johnson could pay dividends ‘quickly’
Posted: Monday, August 4, 2008 3:05 pm
By: By TERESA M. WALKER, AP Sports Writer
NASHVILLE (AP) — Finding Chris Johnson in the Tennessee backfield is easy enough.
Just don’t blink.
The running back from East Carolina that the Titans were criticized heavily for drafting with the 24th pick overall is showing that the 4.24-second speed in the 40-yard dash he displayed as the NFL Combine’s fastest player in February translates very nicely so far with pads in training camp.
If one teammate is right, Tennessee might have captured “lightning in a bottle.”
“His speed is so deceptive,” fullback Ahmard Hall said. “It seems like he’s such a slippery runner. He sees blocks so well, then he’s bouncing out. If he gets that edge, it’s over. I don’t think anybody in the league can catch him. … Now we have a guy that is lightning in a bottle. If he touches that ball, a few good blocks, a cut here or there, and he’s gone.”
That is why the Titans gambled in April and drafted the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Johnson even though it marked a third straight year Tennessee had used a high draft pick on a running back. In 2006, it was the 45th pick overall on LenDale White. In 2007, it was the 50th pick on Chris Henry, a player who impressed with his workout and speed.
But Henry has struggled enough he hasn’t been able to show off his own speed much. So the Titans went after yet another speedy back, and Johnson looks so good coaches are figuring out a variety of ways to use the rookie on offense. And no, they aren’t ready to share yet.
“You’re going to have to just watch,” coach Jeff Fisher said.
“I’m not going to go into details and tell you what exactly we’re going to be doing with him. We’re going to use him as a running back. We’re going to use him as a wide receiver, and we’re going to use him for everything in between. He’s a talented young man, and also try to use him as a returner.”
A week into camp, Johnson quickly passed Henry for second in the running back rotation, and it was the rookie, not Henry, who took the bulk of the work with the first-team offense when White was excused for a day. The Titans aren’t predicting how many touches Johnson will get, but they want the ball in his hands — a lot.
The rookie missed the first day of training camp before telling his agent to finish up the five-year deal that will pay him $12 million. Since arriving, he has been quietly working with no trash talking, letting his play speak for him and showing how he racked up 6,993 all-purpose yards in college.
Johnson finally may be the changeup from the big, pounding running backs the Titans have preferred in Fisher’s 13 previous full seasons. There was Eddie George, the franchise’s all-time leading rusher and a banger at 6-foot-3. A bowling ball of a runner in Travis Henry, and now White, who was nicknamed “Thunder” at USC for his pounding style.
White welcomes Johnson as a possible NFL-version of the speedy Reggie Bush he played with in college.
But Johnson has looked so good running between the tackles the Titans will be using him straight-up out of the backfield.
“His vision, his quickness,” Fisher said. “He sees very well. He’s instinctive.”
Johnson also has earned a vote of confidence from Vince Young, the quarterback he’ll be helping protect against the pass rush.
“What I like about it is he’s picking up the blitzes,” Young said. “For him to step up in there and pick up certain blocks, that’s what I see and everything else. That’s what he can do. … He’s fast enough, you get the ball in his hands, he’s going to do the rest on his own.”
And the Titans can’t wait to see him in action.