Roschon Johnson’s transition from quarterback to running back was one born out of necessity, as a bevy of injuries prompted the position change only days before the 2019 campaign kicked off. Now, it would be difficult to imagine the future of the Texas Longhorns’ running back room without him.
To say Johnson took to the change like a fish to water would be a bit of an understatement, as evident by his success complementing Keaontay Ingram. After all, much of the reason Johnson arrived in Austin as one of the nation’s most highly-regarded dual-threat quarterbacks was his ability to prove equally as impactful with his legs — throughout three varsity seasons at Port Neches-Groves, Johnson amassed 4,810 rushing yards and 85 scores.
That said, the cause for concern that lingered when injuries forced a true freshman quarterback to transition to running back, regardless of his rushing prowess in high school, was warranted — it was quite simply a less than ideal situation.
But as Johnson began to receive more carries, it quickly became clear that his future was likely at running back, a realization that has since become reality.
Throughout his first three games at the position, Johnson increased his yards per carry average from 3.7 to 4.6 to 5.4, a stretch capped by a 59-yard showing on 11 carries against Rice. After Ingram’s career display the following week against Oklahoma State limited Johnson to only 30 yards, he exploded two weeks later, turning 21 attempts into 121 yards after an early neck stinger sidelined Ingram for the rest of the game. Seven short days later, with Ingram still limited, a 57-yard run headlined Johnson’s eight-carry, 95-yard afternoon against Oklahoma.
The following four games netted Johnson only 20 attempts, but after an ankle injury forced Ingram into another early exit against Baylor, ultimately limiting him in Texas’ regular-season finale against Texas Tech, Johnson looked the part yet again, producing his second 100-yard effort of the season (102) and turning three of his 23 carries into touchdowns.
And though the raw numbers weren’t as eye-popping as his 100-yard afternoon against the Red Raiders, Johnson’s Alamo Bowl performance was arguably even more impressive, as he averaged 8.2 yards per carry against Utah, the nation’s top-ranked rush defense.
Beyond the numbers — Johnson’s 649 yards and seven touchdowns were the second-most among all true freshman running backs in the Big 12 — it was the way in which Johnson complied those numbers that validated his future in the backfield. On seemingly every touch, the 6’2, 200-pounder ran with power and purpose; the later isn’t too common among true freshman backs, especially one who hadn’t played the position since fifth grade. After displaying a unique decisiveness when exploding through holes, Johnson routinely fought through initial contact for additional yardage, which helped pave the way for 36 first-down runs and 21 rushes of at least 10 yards.
Not to mention, Johnson’s bullish rushing style didn’t come at the expense of ball security, as he didn’t fumble once in 123 attempts, which proved especially valuable to a Texas staff that stresses ball security.
Furthermore, Johnson proved valuable even when he wasn’t receiving carries, which was often considering that he received single-digit carries in all but three games, as he was an especially capable and willing pass blocker in an offense that oftentimes abandoned the ground game altogether.
And these notable efforts and traits were all evident last season, despite tremendously limited development at the position to date. Such is why Johnson, at times, left some yards on the field due to bad readers, but even then, when he made a mistake, he did so with with conviction and acceleration into and past the line of scrimmage. Those deficiencies will become less evident as Johnson continues to develop at the position and enjoys more than a single week to practice it prior to the season.
With that said, Johnson is at an intriguing position for the demands of his development entering his sophomore season. Unlike the pressure that surrounds Ingram, Johnson isn’t exactly expected to break out for a 1,000-yard campaign and a jump into stardom in 2020, so he can enjoy some level of comfort in his role as he continues to grow into it. But on the other hand, also set to arrive on campus and push for playing time is Bijan Robinson, the top-ranked 2020 running back prospect who comes equipped with superstar expectations.
So while Johnson doesn’t necessarily need to become a star in only his second season as a true running back, he’ll likely need to develop at enough of an accelerated rate to avoid sacrificing reps to and ultimately being surpassed by Robinson, as was the case with Daniel Young, Toneil Carter, and Kirk Johnson during Ingram’s debut season.
If Johnson can do just that, he may very well solidify himself as one of the most value backup running backs in the nation.