BITTERSWEET CAREER COMES TO AN END SATURDAY FOR RECORD-SETTING UTE BACK
Sometime Saturday afternoon during the BYU-Utah football game, Ute running back Eddie Johnson will take the ball, make one last trademark cut, and be gone. Perhaps it will produce a touchdown. More likely it will mean a modest gain, leaving him and his fans to wonder if the play would have produced a touchdown two years ago.
And then the star-crossed college career of Eddie Johnson will be finished.Last week against Utah State Johnson had his best day of the 1988 season, rushing for 136 yards on 28 carries. That put his career mark total 3,087 yards, making him the first Ute ever to crack the 3,000-yard barrier. It was an especially impressive performance considering Johnson, who relies on sharp cuts and changes of speed for his yardage, was playing on soggy natural turf. "Our goal was for Eddie to run under control," says running backs coach Wayne McQuivey. "He had never gained 40 yards on natural turf in bad weather." But on that day he gained far more than that, and made history.
To become Utah's alltime rushing leader is a fairly impressive accomplishment. The roll call of contenders includes Carl Monroe (San Francisco), Del "Popcorn" Rodgers (Green Bay, San Francisco), Tony Lindsay (Toronto) and Eddie Lewis. Johnson passed them all. Rodgers didn't make much of a showing until his senior year. It earned him a decent stay in the NFL. Lindsay's college career was more consistent (read: injury free) than Johnson's, but his skills were the kind fairly common among the WAC's small, light running backs. Monroe was shifty and fast but lacked Johnson's explosiveness. "Is Eddie the best ever at Utah?" asks McQuivey. "Yes, he has been. When you analyze the ups and downs, the overcoming of turmoil, the injuries, and see what he accomplished, those things are what have made him the best in University of Utah football history."
McQuivey continues, "There are not many guys in the country like Eddie. Oh, there are others that can do those things, but we don't get them at the University of Utah."
Johnson's gifts are the kind a player can't practice. He has uncanny lateral movement, fine quickness and the ability to change directions instantly. "Eddie runs with his feet. That sounds silly, but what I'm saying is that he makes those moves because he has great feet. He has the ability to change directions and accelerate," says McQuivey. "There are not many backs who run with their feet that way . . . Payton, Dickerson, Sayers . . . that's what Eddie Johnson does."
When Johnson leaves the university it will be a somewhat bittersweet parting. Not because he harbors ill feelings toward the program, but because of what never took place, or better stated, what took place later than it should have.
When Johnson was a freshman in Coach Chuck Stobart's option offense he burst onto the scene with a vengance. He rushed for 1,021 yards, ranking first nationally among college freshmen and earning AP All-America honorable mention honors. His 248 yards rushing against UTEP and 224 against Colorado State that year rank first and third among single-game rushing performances by a Ute.
But soon Johnson's troubles began. Stobart was fired after the 1984 season and his replacement was high-tech passing phenom Jim Fassel. Instead of being the main cog in a running offense, Johnson became a supporting actor, catching passes out of the backfield and working as a decoy to set up the pass. It was no longer the Eddie Johnson show.
Johnson considered transferring to Pitt - where Stobart became offensive coordinator - when the coaching change occurred. But Fassel and his staff convinced Johnson they would teach him to catch passes as well as run, and the change would make him more marketable to the pros.
Before Fassel's arrival, Johnson was labeled as a player with stone hands. But after working on catching passes through the spring and fall before his sophomore year and eventually improved into a good receiver. McQuivey says Johnson may even get a shot in the pros as a receiver. "Eddie's got sweet hands," he says.
Hopes were high that Johnson would become the first player in NCAA history to rush for 1,000 yards and get another 1,000 yards in receptions.
But Johnson turned in a disappointing sophomore season. While he was adjusting to being a peripheral player in Fassel's passing offense, he began a string of injuries that would hound him through his career. He developed a "jumper's knee" and damaged his shoulder. The combined injuries kept him at partial speed all year.
Johnson ended up carrying for 75 times - less than half of what he did as a freshman - and gaining just 384 yards. He was overtaken by Eddie Lewis, who went on to lead the team in rushing that year. Johnson's best game was a 96-yard performance in the second game of the season.
As a junior (1986), it was the old Johnson again. He carried for a personal record 166 times and 1,046 yards, becoming a first-team all-WAC selection. There was little doubt that Johnson was back on track.
Then came another major blow. In the Utes' second game of 1987, Johnson was hit near the sidelines by a San Diego State player, severly tearing ligaments in his knee. He was out for the year. The injury came only days after the Utah publicity department printed up 1,000 full-color fliers promoting Johnson for All-America.
"After that first year when he broke those records, there was no question, he was going to be the greatest running back Utah ever had," muses McQuivey. "Then he had the bad sophomore year and he had the knee injury last year. Now everyone was saying, 'Gee, will Eddie come back?' I wasn't even sure."
After surgery Johnson began a rehab program that took him through last summer. But entering fall camp, Johnson discovered he had inflammed ligaments in his back. The constant work on weight machines to rebuild his legs had strained his back. Consequently, he was unable to work on sprints at all, either during the summer or fall, and his speed and acceleration suffered.
"Eddie's muscles are built up, but he's really never been in shape to play because of the lack of time he's been able to run," says McQuivey.
The knee rehab was a success, but now he had a sore back. Consequently, it has been an up and down year in '88. He began slowly with just 36 yards against Idaho State. That was followed by a meager three-yard rushing performance against Illinois and 28 yards against Hawaii. He didn't have a good game until he went for 135 yards against New Mexico.
The frustration is obvious. Against Air Force Johnson turned the corner and made a cut that nearly sprang him free, but a Falcon safety brought him down from behind. He was the last man between Johnson and the goal line. Against USU last week the Utes ran a counter trap play that should have gone for a touchdown.
"At 100 percent, Eddie moves to the outside after getting through, and it's a touchdown. As it is, it's a 14-15 yard gain. A nice run, but normally Eddie would have broken it," says McQuivey.
"I'm doing OK," says Johnson wistfully. "I have the lateral movement, and a lot of things back. But it's just not me. People who know me can see the little things. They say, 'Eddie could have done that two years ago.' " Johnson says he has been playing this year at about 70 percent of capacity. "I feel I am a step slower."
"No question," agrees McQuivey. "Two years ago, when Eddie was a junior, he made those big plays. When he does it, it electrifies everybody _ the crowd is on its feet, the defense is just saying 'Oh no,' and the offense gets all pumped up. The momentum swings you get when Eddie breaks one is amazing. It is frustrating to see him one step short."
Throughout Johnson's career he has usually performed best in the big games. As a junior, playing at Ohio State, he carried only nine times, but gained 72 yards. He set a goal not to be tackled by All-America linebacker Chris Speilman. Johnson claims he was only tackled once - on a group tackle - by Speilman. "I loved that game," Johnson says.
Against Arizona State as a sophomore, Johnson found himself in the open field approaching All-American defensive back David Fulcher. Johnson faked and turned sharply inside Fulcher, freezing him in his tracks. Fulcher never touched Johnson as he went by into the end zone.
He was even better the following year when he produced a 70-yard run against the Sun Devils. One touchdown run shocked even the Ute coaches. "He turned one way, then the other, spun off two tackles and dived into the end zone. It was one of the most amazing plays I've ever seen," says McQuivey.
"I like to play against the big schools and do something," Johnson says. "I love to be there and play the big names. That's when I like to shine."
So as Johnson approaches his final game, it is with only a few misgivings. He set the school rushing record, but if he had not been injured so often, he would probably have done it far sooner. He remains a frightening prospect for any opposing team ("Watching him play will scare you to death," says Air Force Coach Fisher DeBerry), yet is admittedly only playing at three-quarter speed. He has developed into a good receiver, which adds to his pro potential, but has never fully lived up to the buildup of his freshman year. He has met many of the goals, but fallen short on others.
One of the goals he has yet to meet is to beat BYU. But there is still one game left, and McQuivey is predicting Johnson will have his best game of the season when the Utes meet the Cougars on Saturday. Johnson has improved steadily this year and, of course, this is one of the big teams and big games he thrives on.
Perhaps, for one last game, "EJ" will be the same as before.
"It is a big rivalry. It is a game in which Eddie Johnson likes to produce," says Johnson. "People know Eddie Johnson, the name. Some people who have never seen Eddie Johnson run will see him on Saturday. They might say, 'Ooh! Maybe Eddie Johnson can win the game for Utah.' I may make a big block or I may make an 80-yard run. I'm looking forward to playing."
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