Sept. 4, 2015
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢'Â¬" It wasn't like Devon Johnson was eating daily at the fictional Olympia Cafe of "Saturday Night Live" history, where owner Pete -- played by the late John Belushi -- yelled the "Cheezborger Ã¢â'¬Â¦ Cheezborger" order to his cook.
Johnson, Marshall's star running back, was already a load for opponents last season. In his first collegiate year at the position, he ran through defenses for 1,767 yards. That's big. And a month ago when the Herd's August camp began, the 6-foot-1, 243-pounder ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢'Â¬" or so listed ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢'Â¬" had gotten bigger.
So, which food expert did the Herd seek out to help the guy nicknamed "Rockhead?" Chef Tell or Julia Child? Emeril Lagasse or Bobby Flay or Colonel Sanders? Wolfgang Puck or Rachael Ray?
It was Scott Sinclair Ã¢â'¬Â¦ and the Herd's head strength and conditioning coach had the evidence in the bag.
"They (Herd players) park across the street," Sinclair said, pointing toward Third Avenue and the front of the Dunfee Weight Room. "We saw 'Rock' a couple of times come across the street with a McDonald's bag or Sheetz bag. And it's cool, because they'll park over there (next to Dot Hicks Field) and walk across the street and I guess they don't think anybody sees them.
"But we've got these big windows and we can see everything. We caught him a couple of times with the fast food stuff, so it was more, 'Look Ã¢â'¬Â¦'"
Johnson listened. He weighed 248 pounds at the end of July. When he hits the Edwards Stadium field Sunday for the 2015 season opener against Purdue, the senior will be running and blocking somewhere between 232 and 235.
Johnson's shadow had shrunk, primarily because Sinclair and his staffers aren't over the running back's shoulders now
"During camp, Scott and I ate together during breakfast, lunch and dinner," Johnson said earlier this week. 'And he watched what I ate. He's there to make us better. I got to say hamburgers, greasy hamburgers (were the big loss). I ate more steak and chicken, so it wasn't too bad. I kind of enjoyed it. It wasn't like I really missed things, but I had to cut off double quarter-pounders.
Sinclair also reminded Johnson than when he was really rolling last October ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢'Â¬" a stretch that included a single-game Herd record 272 yards in a victory over Florida Atlantic ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢'Â¬" he tipped the scales at 238.
"Obviously, during camp it's easier to watch the food monitoring because they have to eat with us three times a day," Sinclair said. "But if you want to go out and eat something, try to go to Chipotle and choose a better something there. Or if you go to McDonald's, try to get the grilled chicken on wheat. We educated him on what to eat, what not to eat."
Johnson said he traded late-night chip foraging for a handful of gummies. He said he tried to not eat after 8 p.m.
"I'm playing with more confidence and I'm a whole lot slimmer now than I was," Johnson said when asked the difference between now and last season. "I'm 235, feel faster and better on my feet. I feel like a better player this year than I was last year.
"The 235-238 area, that's where I want to be. I feel like it can be a great year for us."
Johnson conceded he hasn't heard of many big backs slimming down to 235, "but it's good for me. I picked up a lot more speed, and I think when I break free this year, hopefully I won't get caught at the 2-yard line like I usually did last year. My only goal is to not get caught this year Ã¢â'¬Â¦ There were a couple times I ran it down to the 2-yard line and got caught and then we ended up not getting in (the end zone). So, you know, it really hurt me and I felt like I let my team down."
Sinclair convinced Johnson that with some "food for thought," the running back's menu wouldn't be limited anyway.
"We just really wanted to educate him on what's good and what's bad as far as what he needs to be putting into his body and what he needs to stay away from," the third-year Herd strength chief said. "So, during camp food, we made him come up and show us his plate.
"And if it was kind of what we were looking for ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢'Â¬" good sources of protein, chicken, turkey, fish, roast beef, whatever was on meal that day ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢'Â¬" with a smaller helping of carbohydrates, whether it be potatoes, mac and cheese, whatever, and as much fruits and vegetables he wanted.
"And we were trying to limit what he drank ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢'Â¬" maybe not so much Powerade but more water or a mixture. The cookies and ice cream, try to stay away from that. So, it was just educating him on what he needed to choose and what he needed to stay away from."
Johnson's current 8.4 yards per carry is the school career record. A knee sprain cost him a game at Southern Miss and he got limited reps late in the season due to a shoulder injury that needed offseason surgery. He was in a no-contact jersey in spring practice.
And during the summer and in camp, he worked diligently on running with a lower pad level to protect his body and enhance his ability to run through tackles ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢'Â¬" already a specialty of his last season. Sinclair doesn't time Herd players in the 40-yard dash. Johnson said he doesn't need that.
"I can tell I'm faster," he said. "(The pad-level change) keeps me healthy. There aren't a lot of hits on my body. I'm dropping my knees, giving them (less) area to hit. It's been working all camp for me, hasn't had any injury issues, and I hope the season goes like that."
He was one of the nation's top running backs in his first season at the position since starring at Richlands (Va.) High School. He's on preseason watch lists for the Doak Walker, Walter Camp and Maxwell awards, but there's a list that Sinclair's top assistant, Bill Brown, has that may keep Johnson more focused.
"For Devon it was like, 'Look, if you want to be the best you can be, this is what you have to choose from to eat," Sinclair said. "Coach Brown does a good job putting out a list and it says, 'Scout Team,' then a list of foods.
"If you want to be a Scout Team player, eat this crap. If you want to be all-conference, choose from these. If you want to be All-American, choose from these. So, little things like that help you make better food choices.
"And then we say, I can't grab your hand and walk out of here. When you go home at night then it's on you to decide what you eat and what you don't eat."
What Johnson wants to gobble up now are yards.