Talking is Ian Johnson’s forte. So is running through people, by people, scoring touchdowns, earning national honors, blocking, rebounding from a collapsed lung, smiling, sampling dog food, crocheting clothing and hoarding produce.
This isn’t a run-of-the-mill college football running back. Johnson was second in the nation in rushing (1,613 yards) and led the country with 24 touchdowns, and figures to make a leap next season from this year’s eighth-place finish in Heisman voting.
He also missed a game when a cracked rib and collapsed lung kept him in the hospital for a few days in mid-November. The injury occurred on a hit against San Jose State, but he played the rest of the game, didn’t play against Utah State, then came back to end the season with 147 yards and three touchdowns against Nevada.
He’ll talk about the stats and All-America awards but considers it window dressing. He’s not in town to dissect every nuance and overanalyze Monday’s Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma.
“It’s a big-time game and a big deal, but forget all the hype, let’s go play,” he said.
Many around the Broncos consider that a bit unusual, if not refreshing, from a redshirt sophomore who’s emerged from a formerly crowded backfield to carry the No. 2 offense in Division I-A.
His own rise to prominence is all well and good, but for Johnson it’s about winning. And when it’s not about football, that’s when things get interesting.
“He doesn’t fit the mold of running back,” Broncos coach Chris Petersen said.
“He’s a different guy,” defensive tackle Andrew Browning said.
Johnson was a star at Damien High School in Southern California. The Broncos noticed and made a push for him over a few Pac-10 schools.
Johnson first saw Boise State play at UCLA and noticed the Broncos had “the biggest kicker I’ve ever seen.”
“They wanted me as much as I wanted to play college football,” he said.
He redshirted in 2004, and took on teasing teammates by crocheting hats and beanies, a hobby he learned in high school when he begged for a hat and his mother forced him to create instead of buy.
More than half the Broncos have been outfitted with homemade headwear, and his asking price of $15 equated to two hours of labor at minimum wage, usually done while watching TV.
Though he says he never openly advertised, the NCAA decided his on-the-side business could be viewed as self-promotion and strongly suggested Johnson curb the crocheting during the season.
“You better believe I heard a lot about it when I first got here,” he said. “I wasn’t exactly the coolest person because of it. Guys have asked me to teach them, the same guys who used to harass me.”
Some teammates are still waiting.
“I’ve said this to every media outlet, ESPN, local, national, he promised the offensive line beanies,” center Jadon Dailey said. “But he told me he has something for me after the bowl game. Maybe he’ll buy us dinner, that would be even better. I’d rather have food.”
Speaking of harassing, Johnson didn’t help his cause during the summer when a team talent show went “Fear Factor”-style. Survival in the contest meant doing something extremely talented or gross.
“So gross it was,” he said, and he took in a healthy-sized sampling of dog food.
“There are some things I don’t ask him about, I just move on,” Petersen said.
He’s upgraded his diet since, at one point consuming three bananas per meeting — 10 per day — during the summer. It was the best way he knew how to keep his energy high during 16-hour days.
It’s all part of his comboplatter personality. Teammates rave about his talent, intellect, well-rounded approach to life and humility.
Despite the hordes of media all week, he hasn’t flinched and has become an unofficial team spokesman. Peers also notice him signing extra autographs and spending time talking with kids and alumni.
Patience has also been his biggest virtue on the field. After sitting out his first year, he split time with two other running backs last year.
It’s helped playing behind the most dominant offensive line in the WAC, and with a straight-forward style of speed and power, Johnson averages more than 6 yards per carry.
“He definitely waits for his O-line to get on their blocks, and then he’ll hit the gap,” Oklahoma defensive end C.J. Ah You said. “It might not seem like anything’s happening, and then he’ll just shoot into a gap and break away.”
Players were allotted eight tickets for Monday’s game, and Johnson has 56 family and friends coming.
“The credit card bill is going to be sky-high,” he said.
Time to break out the needle and thread.