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Game 12: ECU 35, Tulane 12


Game Slants
Sunday, November 25, 2007

By Denny O'Brien

C.J. carves place among the greats

By Denny O'Brien
All Rights Reserved.

GREENVILLE – Chris Johnson played his last home game for East Carolina, but Saturday won’t be his final appearance in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

Sometime, perhaps before his pro career is complete, he’ll return for his induction into East Carolina’s Athletics Hall of Fame. If that isn’t the case, the legitimacy and criteria for enshrinement as a Pirates football legend must be seriously questioned.

The same goes for Conference USA. If Johnson isn’t featured prominently on the league's list of postseason superlatives, the league should discontinue the annual tradition of honoring individual performers.

As much as any player over the past decade, Johnson has exemplified greatness in every aspect of his trade. He’s proven himself lethal as a runner, receiver, and kick returner, a legitimate home run threat any time the ball is in his possession.

In ECU’s 35-12 victory over Tulane, Johnson also proved himself a durable workhorse with 27 carries for 155 yards and two touchdowns. He punctuated that with 85 yards receiving and another score, a 33-yard touchdown that mercilessly put the Green Wave out of its misery.

“Chris Johnson really is something special,” Pirates coach Skip Holtz said. “I’m really proud and happy for him with the success that he’s having right now.

“I know last year was a frustrating year for him. I think he worked extremely hard in the off-season, and he’s worked very hard for what he’s got. It would have been really easy for him to have a prima donna type of attitude, as talented as he is and the success that he was having.

"He was a workhorse all year for us.”

Make that a thoroughbred. That is a more accurate description of Johnson’s contribution to ECU this season, without which the Pirates almost assuredly would find themselves home for the holidays.

With him, though, East Carolina is destined for its second consecutive trip to a postseason bowl. Though just where hasn’t been officially been determined, it should be abundantly clear that ECU will arrive at its destination by the nifty feet of Johnson.

And that’s not to say that East Carolina should be labeled a one-man show. Far from it. Johnson has received plenty of help from his supporting cast this season, especially the improved offensive front.

“We’re putting the quarterback under center a lot more this year than we have in years past,” Holtz said. “He (Johnson) can get it five yards deep and get a full head of steam running down hill, instead of being in the shotgun where we didn’t feel like we had the offensive line to be able to do this the past couple of years.

“I think the development and the way that the offensive line has evolved has helped him do that. He is a much better back in the I (formation) coming down hill getting the ball than he is in the shotgun.”

That was certainly so against Tulane, just like it was three weeks ago against Memphis. And in both cases, Johnson seemed to gain steam as the defense grew weary, a testament to how well-conditioned he is as an athlete.

But athleticism is hardly an issue with Johnson. Never has been. In ECU’s rich football history, you probably won’t find a more athletic running back, one who possessed both the elite speed and diverse repertoire to completely overwhelm a defense.

Now he’s added the endurance to thoroughly wrestle an opponent into submission. And when the rival running back is more decorated in the press, Johnson seems to increase his stranglehold on the defense.

“It feels really good,” Johnson said of his effort against Tulane. “I really don’t get any publicity in this conference.”

“It’s always (Tulane's) Matt Forte or (Central Florida's) Kevin Smith. Every time I go out against each one of them, I prove that I’m the better back.”

Typically quiet and humble, Johnson has a point. In showdowns against C-USA’s most marketed backs, Johnson has gotten the upper hand on the scoreboard and on the stat sheet.

He convincingly upstaged Smith in October, more than doubling him in all-purpose yardage and in touchdowns scored. Though the margin was smaller Saturday against Forte, it was clear that Johnson was the most dangerous player on the field.

Save for East Carolina’s visit to West Virginia earlier this season, that’s been the case every weekend this fall. Truthfully, there are only a handful of opponents nationally with which the advantage would be definitively reversed.

You just won’t find that scenario anywhere in C-USA. You also won’t find many seasons in ECU history that compare favorably to what Johnson accomplished in 2007, which is a mouthful when you consider the list of tailbacks who’ve donned purple and gold.

Carlester Crumpler, Earnest Byner, Junior Smith, Scott Harley, and Leonard Henry are just a few that come to mind. All had memorable careers at East Carolina and are firmly implanted in the Pirates’ record book.

But any conversation about the best running backs in East Carolina history is hollow without mentioning Johnson. By all measures, you won’t find a more complete package.

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11/25/2007 04:14:12 AM

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