COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Two years ago, Ty Johnson admitted he would never have fathomed the position he’s in now. Coming out of a tiny class 1A high school in the hills of Western Maryland, the Terps’ sophomore running back had no idea he’d quickly ascend the depth chart at a program in one of college football’s best conferences.
“No,” laughed the 5-foot-10, 205-pound Johnson. “Fort Hill (Cumberland, Md.) is a very small school, and not many people come out of Fort Hill. But my head coach [Todd Appel] always told me, ‘No one will ever be able to outwork you.’ He said I had talent, but with hard work I could be unstoppable.
“So even when [Maryland strength coach Rick] Court came in, and we had a grueling winter, and I was tired, I had it in the back of my mind that some Ohio State running back or Michigan linebacker was going more than me. I knew I needed to keep going so that when it comes time, I can beat them.”
That mentality is what endeared Johnson to the former UMD staff, which gave the diminutive speedster his first and only FBS offer two summers ago. And it’s certainly served the Cumberland native well during his time thus far in College Park, both under the Randy Edsall regime and now under D.J. Durkin’s watch.
Last year, as a true freshman, Johnson fought his way into the rotation and appeared in all 12 games. He ended up rushing for 250 yards and three touchdowns, highlighted by a season-ending breakout in which Johnson had just two carries, but turned them into 87 yards and two touchdowns against Rutgers.
Johnson carried that momentum straight into the offseason, leaving the new Maryland coaches -- from Durkin to Court to running backs coach Anthony Tucker to offensive coordinator Walt Bell -- impressed with the runner’s drive.
“[Being named the starter] is very exciting. It got me smiling when I saw it, but it’s been tough. I read that Coach Durkin said that I earned it, and it’s great that I earned it, but I still have work to do,” Johnson said. “I can always get better at pass pro, hitting the right gaps fast enough or even just making cuts sooner, or improving my route running. It’s all stuff you have to keep improving if you want to get better.
“I’ve got to stay humble and hungry and not let it go to my head. People from home message me saying, ‘Oh yeah good stuff, that’s my boy,’ but that doesn’t affect me. I just want to contribute to the team. It’s a big jump from last year, but I’m not going to let that faze me.”
It wasn’t always easy sledding for the second-year local, however. Although Durkin and Co. loved Johnson’s relentless motor and dedication, it took the back awhile to adjust to Bell’s up-tempo spread.
“To be honest, he started slow,” Bell said. “But I think that was just mentally more than anything else. Our running backs have an incredible amount of mental pressure put on them, from pass protection, throw game, throw game. Those guys have to play three, four different spots, all the while just being called a ‘running back.’ I think early that kind of slowed Ty down a little bit, mainly the pass protection piece.
“But I think once he settled in, you really got to see who Ty is in terms of linear speed, in terms of burst, you really saw him separate from defenders. He’s really improved as an inside-zone runner in terms of his patience, and that will make him a more dynamic back from carry to carry, knowing every carry isn’t going to be a home run. He’s grown as camp’s gone on and he’s getting better and better.”
Johnson agreed with Bell, although he said after a couple weeks he felt more comfortable in the system. He said his, along with his fellow runners’, read-and-react time readily improved, and thus the offense began to operate more to Bell’s liking by the end of the spring.
“It’s fast,” Johnson deadpanned, in regards to the offense. “We were winded the first week of spring ball. [Bell’s] offense is designed to make the opponent tired, and although we might be tired, we still have to keep going hard at a certain tempo. So the transition was definitely hard, but we’re better off for it.”
By the time fall camp hit, Johnson was prepared to take the next step. Not only had he packed on 15-plus pounds of muscle while maintaining his signature speed, but he had the scheme down pat. By mid-August, it was fairly clear he had the inside track on the top running back spot, ahead of Trey Edmunds, Wes Brown and Jake Funk.
“Ty’s been a consistent guy in his running ability, he’s done a good job with ball security, and he’s a guy who can put his foot in the ground and take it the distance,” Durkin said. “He’s a good pass protector; he’s really worked to improve that. And he’s really good [catching the ball] out of the backfield. So he’s really the total package.
“There are a lot of guys you could make the case for to be the starter, and we’re going to play a lot of them. But Ty, it’s a testament to him; he’s worked hard and earned that opportunity.”
Like the rest of the team, Johnson said the position battle with the aforementioned backs created not a bit of animosity. Each runner, according to Johnson, realizes they have a respective talent and a respective role in the offense -- and they’ll each get their share of touches, regardless of who’s starting.
“It’s like brotherly love. We’re tight with each other and it makes us strong. When one of us is messing up, we’re not afraid to be like, ‘You need to get right, you need to fix that, you need to pay attention to this in meetings.’ There is that sense of trust and that sense of honesty,” Johnson said. “With me, Wes [Brown], Trey [Edmunds] and even the underclassmen like Jake [Funk], we want the best for each other.”
But while each running back brings something to the table, Johnson doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. His reputation is that of a speedster, a track star who entered Maryland with a 4.4-40-yard dash. Now that he’s a starter in the Big Ten, though, he wants to prove he can be a true lead back.
“Coach [Anthony Tucker] tells all of us in the running back room we need to be the total package. Speed is one of the main things I had coming in here, but I want to be able to pass block, play special teams. I want to be able to do it all,” Johnson said. “That’s what the greats do, they can do everything. I want to be part of that one day.”