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Pirate Notebook No. 326
Monday, November 5, 2007

By Denny O'Brien

Johnson, OL proving critics wrong

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

Chris Johnson
Photo: ECU SID


For the second year in a row, Denny O'Brien is a member of the voting panel for the Harris Interactive College Football Poll, commissioned by the Bowl Championship Series. O'Brien was nominated to the panel by Conference USA.

The Harris Poll is a component of the BCS Standings, which also take into account the USA Today Coaches Poll and an average of six computer service rankings. The updated BCS Standings, as released weekly by the National Football Foundation, are posted on each Monday morning.

Here is this week's ballot as submitted by O'Brien on Sunday to Harris Interactive:

 1 Ohio State
 2 Oregon
 3 LSU
 4 Oklahoma
 5 West Virginia
 6 Missouri
 7 Kansas
 8 Hawaii
 9 Arizona State
10 Boston College
11 Texas
12 Michigan
13 Southern Cal
14 Georgia
15 Connecticut
16 Florida
17 Virginia Tech
18 Boise State
19 Auburn
20 Alabama
21 Tennessee
22 Clemson
23 Virginia
24 Arkansas
25 Wake Forest

Complete BCS Standings


BVL: BCS Standings
Denny O'Brien's BCS Harris Poll Ballot
O'Brien: Johnson, OL proving critics wrong
Game Center: ECU 56, Memphis 40
Box Score/Statistics
Audio: Skip Holtz post-game
Audio: Talk 1070 post-game call-in show
O'Brien: Prolific C.J. offsetting Bucs' shaky 'D'
Monroe: Kevin's Keys to the Game
C-USA Standings, Scores, Schedule
ECU Schedule, Scores, Attendance, Links

OK, ‘fess up. After last year, you convinced yourself that Chris Johnson was destined for the slot, a role that on good days might produce a half-dozen catches and 85 yards.

If not, you were in the minority. Because his struggles with consistency at running back had many — including me — sending C.J. on a deep route to the receiving corps where East Carolina lost two of its primary playmakers and its most consistent possession receiver.

It certainly made sense. Johnson had fallen short of the textbook definition of the position, at times looking more like a three-year experiment than a true feature back. He struggled between the tackles, wasn’t the best cutback runner on the planet, and he had a tendency to run squarely into the defensive line for no gain.

At no point during his first three seasons did Johnson indicate his ability to carry a hefty workload. He even lost his starting job last season to Brandon Fractious, eventually finding himself lost in the mix at receiver down the stretch.

So what’s the difference? How has Johnson suddenly gone from a speedster who plays football to a true football player who possesses breakaway speed?

Part of that answer rests squarely on the shoulders of Johnson. His determination during the spring to reclaim his position started with his commitment to find comfort between the tackles.

Where he once avoided contact, Johnson now seems to invite it. That was certainly the case during a run against Memphis on Saturday in which he broke two tackles at the line of scrimmage, reversed field and scampered 28 yards.

It was a play that somehow got lost in the shuffle of runs that included 70, 50, 44, and 16-yard scores. But during his 301-yard ransacking of the Memphis defense, it was the most telling moment in Johnson’s metamorphosis as a runner.

The better kept secret to Johnson’s success lies directly on the broader shoulders of the most underappreciated group on ECU’s roster. The offensive line has steadily improved throughout the season, and this former patchwork unit has developed into a steadying force.

“The running backs and quarterbacks running the ball did a great job once they got into that second level of turning and making one miss,” Pirates coach Skip Holtz said after the Memphis game. “We were the recipient of a bunch of big plays because our backs did a great job of making that one safety miss.

“I think the real difference is the job that (Steve) Shankweiler has done with that offensive line. What that offensive line did today was they got them through to the second level. Once they got there, they can make some things happen in space.”

The line certainly created plenty of that against Memphis. Many of the holes Johnson was awarded were big enough to juxtapose five ample-sized running backs, perhaps with room to spare.
And unlike previous seasons, Johnson doesn’t moonwalk when opposing defenses are parted. He now hits the hole with a fury.

“This is the first year that we’ve really felt comfortable enough to put the quarterback under center, put the tailback into the I (formation) where you have a chance to hand the ball to a guy like Chris Johnson,” Holtz said. “There at the very end, we turn and cut that one back all the way against the grain.

“That’s one of the benefits of being way back there in the I (formation). You get a chance to see everything unfold. He’s really becoming a weapon for us and doing some great things.”

Doing them often, too.

After Saturday’s touchdown tour of Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadiums, Johnson has a cool 18 on the year (13 rushing, 4 receiving, 1 kickoff return). And with each TD, he keeps climbing ECU’s all-time scoring chart, passing players far-less scrutinized during their careers.

Sometime next week, he almost assuredly will reach another milestone, topping the 1,000-yard mark. Later, he should find himself a spot somewhere on the All-Conference team and in strong contention for the league’s offensive MVP.

If neither occurs, someone hasn’t been paying attention.

I sure have. And right now, C.J. has my vote as the league’s top offensive star. Betcha he gets the nod from Tommy West, too.

Send an e-mail message to Denny O'Brien.

Dig into Denny O'Brien's Bonesville archives.

11/06/2007 02:25:23 AM

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