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The Bradsher Beat
Friday, October 5, 2007

By Bethany Bradsher

Pirates resolve, 'In C.J. we trust'

By Bethany Bradsher
All rights reserved.

Chris Johnson is happy to be getting the ball more, but it isn’t because he likes to hear his name called over the P.A. system or because he thinks his teammates in the backfield can’t move the ball.

It’s just this: Johnson is sure that he is a more effective running back when he has more carries. And in the victory at Houston last week, with 24 rushes for 147 yards, he found himself in the rhythm that only a busy game can create.

“At first it was kind of frustrating, not getting the running game and just getting like 8 or 10 carries every week,” he said. “They finally put their confidence in me and said they were going to give me the ball. I felt I stepped up and showed them what I could do with 20 plus carries."

When a true featured back grows up in a system to help a ground game run on all cylinders, everyone on the offense is part of the harmony, running backs coach Junior Smith said. In particular, Johnson’s strong play recently has boosted the confidence of the offensive line, adding a spark despite shifting positions in light of starter Josh Coffman’s injury.

“It kind of all came together last week, and now we just need to start being consistent with it,” Smith said. “We gave Chris a chance to get into a rhythm. We gave him 20, 24 carries, that’s probably the most carries he’s had since he’s been here. We made a conscientious effort to say hey, we’re going to give him some carries. Even though it might not work the first time we’re going to be patient with him and give him another chance and get him going into that rhythm.

“Last year we moved him around a lot, but this year we’re sticking with him in the backfield and we’re going to say, ‘Hey, find your rhythm, we believe in you, now go make some plays.”

It may be far too early to herald the return of the Pirates’ rushing attack, especially when it seemed in recent years that the Pirate Nation just came to expect anemic rushing statistics as par.

It’s a low point that has been hard for Johnson to watch, especially when he has felt sure that the ECU offensive unit could turn the tide under the right circumstances.

“A lot of times we don’t get enough carries to really get a running game going,” he said. “We all know that if we get the carries we’re going to step up.”

It’s a question that’s part offensive football strategy and part talent pool evaluation, this issue of whether a team puts its fortune on one horse or shares the wealth with the whole stable.

Of course, history bears out the wisdom of finding the right featured back and keeping him in the spotlight for a 1,000-yard plus season.

At ECU, that fraternity has included players like Junior Smith with 3,745 career yards, Leonard Henry with 3,089 for his career and Scott Harley, who compiled the Pirates’ top running season ever with 1,745 net yards in 1996.

Johnson, a senior who ran for 684 yards in 2005 but struggled to define his role and only tallied 314 last year, is confident that he can help lead his team’s rushing resurgence on its way to a winning record. Smith sees a new, harder working Johnson now, he said, tougher and more seasoned than the kid who came to Greenville long on talent and short on discipline.

“Before, he was more just playing, kind of being a crowd pleaser, how we looked,” Smith said. “Now he’s getting respect for how he plays. He finally matured enough to say ‘Hey, it’s not about how you look in your uniform, it’s about how you go out and perform.’”

Johnson may be a prosperous backfield CEO in a season that seemed poised to govern by committee. But surprisingly, a little bit of digging into the Pirates’ ground attack history indicates that focusing on one back doesn’t necessarily translate into rushing riches.

In ECU’s top eight rushing seasons since 1977, the team’s top running back has carried the ball an average of 31.5 percent of the time. Only once in those eight seasons — ’79, ’81 through ’84, ’87,’88 and 2001 — did one running back notch more than 50 percent of the yards. That milestone was reached by Leonard Henry in 2001, when he rushed for 1,432 of the Pirates’ total 2,225 yards.

But history aside, Saturday could shape up as a classic battle of the backfield workhorses, with Johnson running against Central Florida rusher Kevin Smith. Smith, who battled injury and had a slow 2006 season lust like Johnson, is leading the nation with rushing yards per game with 178.25 and with rushing touchdowns with 10 so far.

As Johnson, an Orlando native, faces his hometown school, he hopes that his numbers will be even more memorable than those of the runner on the other sideline.

“The more carries you get, the more comfortable you get, and you get in a zone, and it’s like the whole defense slows down to you and you hit your reads quicker and better,” Johnson said.

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10/05/2007 01:29:16 AM

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