In the large, catacombs-like basement of M&T Bank Stadium last year, site of the Maryland state high school championship game, tiny (at least at that time) Ty Johnson, all 5-feet-10, 172 pounds of him, spoke in hushed but certain tones.
He spoke of representing his hometown of Cumberland, Md., and his alma mater of Fort Hill High School at College Park, Md., the coming season. And he spoke of setting an example for some of the maybe smaller types out there, kids back home in search of role models, maybe those that some fans and recruiters doubted as he embarked on his next journey.
Johnson was the first Division I football player in decades to sign with Maryland out of tiny but still formidable Fort Hill, and the western outpost of Cumberland, a school and town that have seen better days. Sagging population and dwindling enrollment have pounded both for years, but for Cumberland natives, Fort Hill football still remains the refuge and rallying point.
But Sept. 5, there was nothing tiny about Johnson, now a strapping 188 pounds, who made his Terps' freshman debut in front a large panoply of those many fans and folks from back home who he so badly wanted to represent.
There was his mother, Tracy Johnson, former military, who raised him as a single mom. There was also his sister and his niece, an uncle, a cousin, all who have been with him throughout. Not to mention that day at Byrd Stadium, his former high school head coach, Todd Appel, and some of the Fort Hill assistant coaches who mentored him.
"It was a great day, but it was all things to the linemen and [Terps running backs] Coach Rich [Terry Richardson] and the other two backs, Wes [Brown] and Brandon [Ross], for teaching me," Johnson said a few days later in respectful rookie reflection.
But it didn't take long for Johnson to open up about the emotion of the day, a 50-21 win over Richmond in which he toted the rock 10 times for 82 yards and a touchdown when some said he never could at this level. All in his first game as a rookie on campus just a few months.
"After I went to the sideline, Coach [Chad] Wilt just smiled at me and said that's how mom feels right now," Johnson said of his area recruiter and the Terps' defensive line coach. "And after I got outside from talking to the team and everything, she [his mother] gave me a big hug and I also talked to my coach. And he [Appel] was crying. But it was a great day, and it was great for him."
It has been quite a journey for the former Fort Hill star, who throughout his recruitment was sometimes tagged a corner, others a slot, maybe even a running back. But if so the latter, could he take the pounding of the Big Ten and beyond?
While Randy Edsall first sold Johnson on the backfield, and with Maryland being his one big offer, the decision was pretty much made for everyone this summer that running back would be his spot. After both junior Albert Reid, and more-so sophomore Jacquille Veii, left the program this offseason, it left a big void. Veii was the Terps' change-of-pace, slasher back, a different look with looser hips than returners Ross and Brown. And his quickness would need to be replaced. Not to mention, the Terps were down to just two experienced backs, and Brown had off-eason shoulder surgery and missed the spring.
So there he was, on the Byrd Stadium field just months removed from a highly-decorated prep career, which included a career 4,851 all-purpose yards and 65 touchdowns, not to mention a gaudy 14.7 yards per carry rushing average. Maybe quieting remaining critics of his size, or even the competition level back home, Johnson clearly looked the part and like he belonged. And perhaps proving other recruiters wrong, too, when the offers failed to pile up for the Western Maryland star, who led Fort Hill to back-to-back 14-0 marks and state titles in Baltimore.
"He's the one that believed in me," Johnson said of Edsall. "But it's not just him that gave me the confidence. The whole team, right when they said I was going in, all the linemen and the other backs and the whole team was like, "you got this Ty. You're going in. You know what you need to do.' It was just great to have my team there, like a new family almost. It's just great to have those guys out there that want to see you get good."
Said Edsall this week in looking back on his rookie’s debut:
“We had him in our summer camp and I just saw the way that he competed and how smooth he was with his hands catching the ball out of the backfield,” Edsall said. “And then when you watched him play on film in high school, you saw a guy who played hard all the time: a football player. Having the opportunity to go out and watch him in person last year showed how he handled himself, how he played and how other people responded to him. Football is important to him, he has a great value system and he’s a leader and a great teammate.”
Johnson said he was motivated from the start -- regardless of the other backs leaving -- that he had to work hard and learn from the jump and trust his upperclassman teammates.
"You know, when I see Brandon Ross and Wes Brown out on the practice field doing everything they can with minimal mistakes, that makes me just want to be like them and contribute to this team," Johnson said of his early development.
Johnson impressed at first blush at the Terps' schoolboy camp two summers ago, blazing a 4.4 40-yard dash and earning an offer on the spot. He added the 17 pounds in the last year, and looks noticeably thicker, but still as quick in and out of his cuts as evidenced Sept. 5 at Byrd. He had a 2-yard touchdown rush on a pitch, while he also rolled up rushes of 23 and 20 yards. While it was late, fourth-quarter duty against FCS Richmond, Johnson showed that smoothness in and out of his cuts, and vision, the Terps are going to need this fall as the third and a change-of-pace back.
Said Terps offensive coordinator Mike Locksley this week:
"No he hasn't [surprised],” Locksley said. “That's the reason we evaluated him in the recruiting process. He's not a guy that had a bunch of offers, but he came to our camp, and anytime we have an opportunity to work with a kid and see the skill-set ... I think we were one of the first major Division I schools to offer him. He's come in and done exactly what we [projected] him to do. He's a good player, and I'm glad he's on our team."
Off the field, Johnson said time management has been the biggest adjustment, the fast pace of everything at College Park, "but I think I am adjusting well to my classes and all. What's most important, school obviously, and having to negotiate that with film and practices and everything with football."
On this day, right after a 5 p.m. lift, Johnson fielded a mini-conference call with reporters as he could not make the afternoon session with classwork coming first.
And ever conscientious to his teammates and fellow backs, Johnson avoided any question of how his style is any different than the other two backs, Brown and Ross.
"I don't think we are really any different, to be honest," Johnson said. "I believe that we all work hard and we all want to contribute together as one. And we want to be that position on the team that wants to go out there and have that one mindset.
"And I just want to keep up with them because they are the most experienced, the ones that have the most knowledge and they have been in the big games where they have the situations where something might go wrong and they have to adjust."