Johnson's fast start has FSU's attention

October, 19, 2012
10/19/12
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The intention was never for the trash talk to be kept secret.

Miami freshman Duke Johnson boasted to his high school coach, then made sure his coach knew to pass along the comments to former Norland teammate Xavier Rhodes.

"Duke knows I'm gonna kill him," Rhodes joked this week. "He's talking a lot of trash, and [our coach] comes back and tells me what he's been saying."

[+] EnlargeDuke Johnson
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesMiami is 3-0 in games in which freshman Duke Johnson rushes for at least 70 yards.
Of course, Johnson's confidence -- and his talent -- has never been much of a secret.

The freshman tailback burst onto the scene this season by racking up 100 yards from scrimmage in three of his first four games and displaying a few fireworks on special teams to boot.

Miami might lack the stockpile of NFL talent it once boasted, but Johnson has the potential to be as electric as any player to wear a Hurricanes jersey in the last decade. He's definitely got Florida State's attention.

"If it was me last season, I would've been like, 'He's a freshman,' " safety Lamarcus Joyner said. "But after experiencing the nightmare that is Sammy Watkins, we're definitely going to prepare for him and treat him like a man."

Watkins, a freshman receiver at Clemson last season, torched Florida State for 141 yards and two touchdowns last season, but for Joyner to even put Johnson in the same class offers some indication of the dangers presented by the Miami running back.

"He was a heck of a player in high school," Jimbo Fisher said. "He's bright guy, and I'm not surprised. What he's doing, he's a big-play guy."

Rhodes and Johnson alternated at tailback in high school -- Rhodes as a senior, Johnson as a freshman.

"Man, he was good as a freshman in high school," Rhodes said. "Real good."

Miami has its share of offensive weapons this season, and the Hurricanes have averaged nearly 300 yards per game. Johnson's numbers have dwindled a bit in the past three weeks, too, as defenses have become aware of his big-play ability.

But with Miami quarterback Stephen Morris nursing an ankle injury, Johnson will need to be a significant piece in the Miami offense this week, and while Florida State's defense is stout, it was just one week ago that Boston College's Andre Williams ran for 104 yards against the Seminoles. It was the first time in more than a year FSU's defense had allowed a running back to top 100.

"You got our attention. You came in, you're highly recruited, and you're doing well," Joyner said of Johnson. "So we're going to treat him like a man. We're going to come at him, we're going to game plan, we know he's a threat so we're going to go hard."

Noles to watch:
1. The linebackers. FSU's linebackers were tested often against NC State, which chipped away with one short pass to running backs and tight ends after another. The unit showed improvement against Boston College, but Vince Williams, Telvin Smith and company will face a much bigger test trying to slow down Johnson.

2. Chris Thompson. The Hurricanes' rushing defense ranks last in the ACC, allowing 254 yards per game. A week ago, North Carolina's Giovani Bernard ran for 177 yards and two TDs against them. Meanwhile, Thompson is second in the ACC in rushing -- trailing only Bernard -- and he ran for a 158 yards on just 14 carries the last time he faced Miami in 2010.

3. Bjoern Werner. The buzz about Florida State's lack of sacks and ACC refs' lack of holding calls reached its crescendo last week after Boston College became the latest team to quiet the FSU pass rush. This week, the Seminoles' defensive line gets another big challenge in Miami, which has allowed the second fewest sacks in the conference. Werner has continued to make an impact, but he hasn't recorded a sack since Week 3.

Hurricanes to watch:
1. Stephen Morris or Ryan Williams. Morris made strides this week, but it's still unclear who will be taking snaps Saturday in Miami. If it's Williams, Fisher doesn't expect the Hurricanes' game plan to change much, but there's little film to go on when it comes to sizing up the backup quarterback. If it's Morris, FSU will once again be tested by a mobile QB, and Morris is more than capable of burning the Seminoles downfield, too.

2. Phillip Dorsett. The sophomore receiver has been quiet the past two weeks, but he proved to be a dangerous weapon in wins over Georgia Tech and NC State, combining for 16 catches, 375 yards and three touchdowns in those two games. The task of slowing him down will fall, in part, on FSU safety Lamarcus Joyner, a high school teammate of Dorsett.

3. Eddie Johnson. The Miami linebacker has been exceptional since making his first career start against Kansas State in Week 2. He's second on the team with 39 tackles, has 5.5 TFLs and forced three fumbles, including two in a win over NC State.

By the numbers:
24. Total point difference between Florida State and Miami in their 56 previous meetings. The Hurricanes hold a 31-25 edge in wins, but the Seminoles actually hold the slight edge in points scored and have won the last three games played in Miami. FSU's 28-point win in Miami in 2010 is the only time in the last 10 years the outcome was decided by more than one score.

23. Dropped passes by Miami receivers this season, the second-highest tally among all teams in BCS conferences. The 23 drops represent 8.3 percent of Miami's passing attempts, and three of the drops turned into interceptions.*

56.3. EJ Manuel's completion percentage on passes of 20 yards or more this season. It's the third consecutive season in which Manuel has improved in that area, and he got to show off his arm strength last week against Boston College, throwing 10 deep balls (five completions). He threw seven deep balls against NC State the week before, but three came in a final drive working against the clock. Aside from that, he hadn't attempted more than four in any game this season.

7. Sacks by Miami's defense this season, third worst in the ACC ahead of only Virginia and BC. Boston College's non-existent pass rush played a big role in FSU's huge passing game last week as Manuel threw for 439 yards, and if the Seminoles' offensive line holds up just as well against Miami, it could be more of the same for Manuel.

506.6. Average number of yards allowed by Miami's defense this season, ranking 121st nationally out of 124 FBS teams. Miami has allowed at least 485 yards of offense to five of the six FBS opponents it has played this season. Meanwhile, FSU's offense ranks 12th nationally, averaging 530.6 yards per game.

(*Courtesy of ESPN Stats and Info.)

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