Nov. 4, 2012
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON - Devon Johnson's season has been full of surprises.
The biggest one so far came Saturday afternoon, when the freshman became the 16th player to score a Marshall touchdown this season, in the Thundering Herd's 38-28 victory over Memphis at Edwards Stadium.
After all, Johnson, a fullback in a hurry-up attack that features the throwing arm of sophomore quarterback Rakeem Cato, rarely gets the ball in his hands. He hasn't gotten a rushing play this season.
But in the second quarter, Johnson grabbed a Cato toss and headed for a 9-yard score to give the Herd (4-5, 3-2) a 31-7 lead midway through the third quarter.
"It was great," said the 6-foot-2, 225-pounder from Richlands, Va. "At first it was like it just dawned on me, 'I just scored,' and then I saw one of our linemen, (guard Alex) Schooler, come running at me, hollering, 'Yeah, man!' so I knew it then and I jumped on top of him and started celebrating."
Johnson said he didn't expect to get into the end zone on the first-and-goal play.
"I caught the ball and turned around and lowered my shoulder because I felt like I was going to get hit, but I didn't," he said. "I opened my eyes and I saw the end zone.
"I was kind of stunned I was that close, so I just kept my feet moving and then I just lunged forward, closed my eyes again and opened them and I was in the end zone."
If Johnson were surprised to be there, it wasn't his first eye-opener of the season. He was a backup strongside linebacker to then-starter Raheem Waiters during preseason drills, while at the same time getting a few reps as a backup fullback along with backup middle linebacker Cortez Carter.
Johnson didn't play in the Herd's opening loss at West Virginia, and then got something he didn't see coming.
"I really didn't know whether I'd play this season," said Johnson, one of five true freshmen who have appeared in a game for Coach Doc Holliday's third MU team. "I didn't play in the game at West Virginia, and it looked like I was going to be redshirted.
"But then one of our fullbacks (Zach Wellman) quit the team, and they called me in and Coach Holliday said I'd be at fullback and to put me on the kickoff team. I certainly didn't complain about it."
He made his fullback debut the next week in a home win over Western Carolina.
"It was a little difficult to learn the plays and do it that quick," he said. "Defense to offense is totally different. I was studying defensive plays all through camp and then I had to change over. The coaches were great. They are great. They taught me all week and made sure I knew what I was doing when I got out there.
"One thing is the same. Linebacker or fullback, you're hitting people."
Johnson was a Virginia state Player of the Year at Richlands, helping the Blue Tornado to a Division 3 state title game appearance as a junior. He committed to Marshall a year before he signed, and was the Herd's first commitment for the 2012 class.
His only previous time with the ball in his hands in a Herd uniform was for a first-down, 1-yard reception early in the win at Southern Miss. Johnson has made nine tackles on the kickoff team (he lines up between the hashmarks and the yard numbers), and forced a fumble in the Herd's loss to Tulsa, too.
He estimated he was on the field "for only about 10 plays" from scrimmage in Saturday's win, several of those in the final minutes as the Herd was killing the clock with the running game.
Johnson said he had been told by offensive coordinator Bill Legg after the previous week's loss to UCF that the game versus the Tigers "would have a little more personnel (packages) with you in it, so get ready," he said. "I told Coach (Bill) Legg, 'Yes, sir, I'll be ready.'"
When his opportunities are fewer and far between to impress in a game, does that bring more pressure to open eyes when a fullback replaces one of those wideouts?
"You always want to go in there as much as you can, and you always want to make the most of opportunities," said Johnson, whose teammates call him "Blockhead," a nickname he was given by Holliday. "To me, it's more about doing your job, because if you don't do your job, that could be one play that's your fault.
"So you have to go in there thinking, every time, that it's up to you to make the play work, to make us go. Do your job, or the play's not going to work."
Johnson said he got his first surprise when he arrived at Marshall for summer conditioning as one of the new faces somewhat lost and trying to find their way into the big world of major college football.
Since then, he has joined punter Tyler Williams, long snapper Matt Cincotta, center Cameron Dees and running back Kevin Rodriguez as the only true freshmen to play in a Herd game in 2012.
"I was amazed how we just came together as a group, came together as a team, people smiling, working hard, pulling for one another," Johnson said. "As soon as I got here, everybody took me in. I didn't really talk much. I was just quiet, staying in my place.
"I'm a freshman, and people are talking to me like they knew me for years, and I'm like, 'Hey, how are ya?' and I'm nervous, too.
"We came in, became part of the team, and now we're all working together, and we've got to get these last wins to get to a bowl game."
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After Johnson's touchdown, the Herd got a TD from a 17th player this season when wide receiver Davonte Allen caught a 28-yard pass from Cato to finish the MU scoring Ã¢â'¬Â¦ Defensive end Jeremiah Taylor's second blocked kick this season - a Memphis field goal try - was the Herd's sixth kick block this season. Only Texas (seven) has more. The Herd is tied with Ohio State and Rutgers at six. Marshall had seven kick blocks in 2011.
Cato continued to climb on the Herd's passing charts in the win. The sophomore is 318-of-460 passing with 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season. Cato's completions rank third in the Herd's single-season list, behind his QB coach, Tony Petersen (340 in 1987) and Byron Leftwich (331 in 2002). His 460 attempts are fourth, trailing Petersen (622), Leftwich twice (491 in 2002, 470 in 2001). Cato's 3,290 yards rank No. 11, and he's ninth in scoring passes.
In career numbers, the sophomore already is No. 9 in Herd history in attempts (764), is sixth in completions (500), 10th in yards and seventh in TD passes.