Playing behind three other running backs in 2015, Texas Longhorns sophomore Kirk Johnson didn't have many opportunities. When he finally did on Thanksgiving, he flashed like a brilliant meteor burning across the cosmos before suffering a season-ending ankle injury.
A special teams contributor who recovered the fumble forced by safety DeShon Elliott against Oklahoma and another on a punt against Kansas didn't get a carry last year until he found little room on five efforts against the Jayhawks. Then, when Johnathan Gray and D'Onta Foreman were banged up against the Red Raiders, Johnson burst around the corner on his first carry in the game for a 32-yard gain, showing impressive speed.
Unfortunately, he suffered a bad ankle sprain two carries later and missed the final game against Baylor. An offseason knee injury kept him out of spring practice, pushing him out of the spotlight and making him something of an afterthought in a crowded running back rotation.
But don't be surprised if Johnson quickly vaults redshirt freshman Tristian Houston and junior Roderick Bernard to earn third-team reps once fall camp gets underway this fall -- Johnson is just that athletic. Once a relatively unknown recruit in California despite his pedigree as the son of former Texas All-American defensive back Johnnie Johnson, the 6'0, 191-pounder hadn't even received an offer until the Longhorns extended one in early 2014.
Part of the reason was a junior season shortened by five games due to an ankle injury that sapped much of his explosiveness and left him with relatively average film, even though he still managed to gain 1,228 yards on 8.7 yards per carry. After committing to the Longhorns with his younger brother Collin, the standout early enrollee wide receiver who created substantial buzz during spring practice, the elder Johnson sibling served notice of his health and improved athleticism in an explosive testing session at the Oakland NFTC camp that May.
Named the SPARQ MVP for his efforts, Johnson produced an overall score of 117.42 at an event that featured six invites to The Opening that summer -- there was hardly a dearth of strong athletes at the event. To get that number, Johnson ran a 4.57 40-yard dash, posted an elite 4.00 shuttle time, threw the medicine ball 36 feet, and registered a 35.8-inch vertical leap.
At the time, his overall SPARQ score ranked not far behind elite athletes like five-star cornerback Kendall Sheffield and physical freak Dylan Moses. His shuttle time was even .09 seconds better than Sheffield, who took home two gold medals in the high hurdles at the Texas state track meet that year and posted the nation's best time in the 110-meter hurdles.
Those results also represented notable improvement over the 4.64 40, 4.26 shuttle, and 33.9-inch vertical at the same camp the year before.
It wasn't a fluke, either, as Johnson put his improved athleticism to good use during a strong senior season that produced the type of highlights that he physically could not as a junior due to his ankle injury. The Valley Christian product didn't waste any time making all that clear, either, rushing for 223 yards and four touchdowns on 12 carries in the opener against Pioneer, including an 80-yard effort.
With so few opportunities to assess the athletic development of Johnson over the last year and a half, it's tough to say if he's more athletic than he was two years ago. He may not even be faster than starter D'Onta Foreman. But the pace of the new Texas offense and the bludgeoning that opposing defenses will take from the Smash Brothers in front of him, in addition to the major vertical seams that Sterlin Gilbert's offense creates by stretching opposing cornerbacks so wide, should benefit Johnson tremendously.
Overlooked throughout most of his recruitment and this spring because of his knee injury, Johnson will have a chance to gash some gassed opposing defenses this fall. With his proven athleticism and potential for further growth in speed and power, he could be an extremely dangerous third option for the Longhorns.
How's that for an embarrassment of riches?