Johnson is one of five finalists invited to Saturday's Heisman Trophy ceremonies at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City. Following three solid seasons as a Penn State tailback, the 6-2, 222-pounder had a breakout senior season. He rushed for 2,015 yards at a very impressive 8.0 yards per carry. Auburn's defense is expected to have its hands full with the Penn State offense that features Johnson, who is averaging 214.6 all-purpose yards per game. As a team the Nittany Lions average 436.7 yards per contest with 233.5 per game on the ground.
Johnson more than doubled his career yardage total and he scored 20 of his 24 career rushing touchdowns this season. As a redshirt freshman in 1999, he gained 171 yards on 43 carries. He improved his numbers to 75 carries for 358 yards as as a sophomore. In 2001 as a junior, he rushed for 337 yards on 71 carries.
Penn State finished with a 9-3 record and in the losses, Johnson did not have big games. Paterno, an icon at Penn State and in college football coaching circles, says he doesn't understand how anybody could be critical of his senior star. "Larry Johnson is a great football player," says Paterno, who repeated the statement for emphasis.
"He is one of the greatest football players I have ever been around. I can't tell you why he didn't do this in one game or why he didn't do that in another at this stage. I can't even remember what happened at Iowa, Michigan or Ohio State right now, but he is a great football player and certainly deserves to be considered for the Heisman Trophy."
Paterno notes that going into the 2002 season that he was expecting a big year from Johnson, whose father is the defensive line coach at Penn State. In fact, the all-time winningest coach in Division I football history challenged the senior to be "the guy" at tailback and in one-back sets.
"The only concern I had with Larry is that Larry had to understand how good he was and how much patience he needed, and not just run over people and not be the toughest guy on the field all of the time. Once he got a feel for that, then I think he was obviously the tailback we felt he was going to be. I am not the smartest guy in the world, but I knew this guy had a lot of talent."
Paterno says that in his opinion, Johnson was not taking full advantage of his abilities until this year. However, that has changed and because of it the senior became just the ninth back in Division I history to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a single season. "All is well that ends well," Paterno says. "It is very satisfying to see a young man like Larry Johnson play as well as he has and handle everything as well as he has."
The running back only have to travel across town to play his college football. He was a second team All-State selection for the Little Lions of State College Area High School where he rushed for 2,169 yards and 29 touchdowns as a senior. He says that he considered other schools before deciding to stay at home.
Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville says that stopping Johnson will be a major test for the Tigers, who will face the Nittany Lions for just the second time in school history at this season's Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla. Auburn begins bowl preparations on Saturday with a 10:15 a.m. workout at the football complex on campus. The Tigers will practice in Auburn through the 20th before taking a break and resuming workouts Dec. 26th in Orlando.