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October 23, 2008
Johnson playing a new role for Boise State
For about a two-week period in early 2007, there wasn't a more famous college football player in the country than Boise State running back Ian Johnson.
He scored the winning two-point conversion on a Statue of Liberty play to clinch the Broncos' stunning 43-42 Fiesta Bowl overtime victory over Oklahoma. Johnson - who ran for 101 yards and a touchdown against the Sooners - hadn't even finished his postgame interview when he got down on one knee and proposed to Boise State cheerleader Chrissy Popadics.
Johnson and Popadics spent the next week conducting a flurry of interviews on various morning news shows before marrying in Boise that summer.
"It was more of an honor than anything," Johnson said as he looked back on his moment in the national consciousness. "It wasn't, 'Oh, wow, I'm the best this or the best that.' It's that it was truly an honor to be able to represent this team of good guys."
Two seasons later, Johnson's team just might return to center stage. Boise State is ranked 12th in the initial Bowl Championship Series standings and carries a perfect record into Friday night's game at San Jose State (9 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2). Yet this time, Johnson - a senior - isn't the star attraction.
The player who led the nation in scoring and ranked second in rushing in 2006 hasn't run for 100 yards or carried the ball 20 times in a game this season. And the guy who leads all active college players with 49 career touchdown runs hasn't reached the end zone once in Boise State's past three games.
Johnson's reduced role puts his team-first attitude to the ultimate test. By all accounts, he's passing it with flying colors.
"I miss it," he acknowledged. "But one of the things that's deeply rooted in me is I'm a winner. I want to win. I'd much rather be in the role I am now helping this team win games than to be getting the ball 30 times a game and losing."
Johnson, who finished eighth in the 2006 Heisman balloting, anticipated this new situation. He had the luxury the past two seasons of running behind a bruising offensive line that featured star left tackle Ryan Clady, who was selected by the Denver Broncos with the 12th pick in the NFL Draft.
The departure of Clady and three other starters from last season's offensive line forced the Broncos to go away from the power running game that had worked so successfully the past two years. The emergence of redshirt freshman quarterback Kellen Moore has put more of an emphasis on the passing game.
Johnson remains the Broncos' leading rusher with 363 yards on 78 attempts, but he has averaged just 10.7 carries per game in Boise State's past three contests. Although he has rushed for at least 100 yards in 15 career games - including two 200-yard efforts - Johnson hasn't run for more than 97 yards this season.
"If you look at this team, we're getting it done a little differently than the 2006 year," Johnson said. "2006 was a heavy running game. We were just going to shove it down people's throats and were scoring some 50-odd points a game (Boise State actually ranked second in the nation with 39.7 points per game).
"This year's team is still finding our identity, but we're doing it the best way for our team. ... We're a very unselfish team. There's really no one guy getting a lot of the limelight this year. Everyone's working together. We've got a bunch of young guys and a few old guys sprinkled in. Everyone's working to make us as successful as possible. Sometimes it means old guys playing special teams."
And, yes, that includes Johnson.
You don't find many former Heisman contenders lining up for special teams duty that doesn't include kick returning, yet Johnson has added those duties to his list of responsibilities this season.
Johnson has the team's top kickoff return average and also blocked a punt against Idaho State earlier this season. In Boise State's 37-32 upset of Oregon last month, Johnson provided enough pressure to force the Ducks' Josh Syria into a 3-yard punt. And Johnson recovered a fumble on a kickoff Oct. 11 in a 24-7 triumph over Southern Miss.
He also is having an impact in the passing game. Johnson had a career-high 106 receiving yards Oct. 1 in a 38-3 victory over Louisiana Tech.
That's why Johnson's coaches insist he isn't necessarily a less productive performer. They instead consider him a more versatile player.
"We're just able to use him more places than we have in the past, starting with special teams," Boise State coach Chris Petersen said. "We didn't have the luxury to do that. Now we can play him on special teams, which are important to us. He's doing a real good job of pass protection as well. He's not just here to carry the football."
Johnson's new role also should reduce the wear and tear on his body over the course of the season. Johnson missed a game in 2006 as a sophomore with a partially collapsed lung. He sat out two games with a bruised kidney last season, then missed most of the Broncos' Hawaii Bowl loss to East Carolina with a sprained ankle. Now that he isn't carrying the ball 20 or so times a game, Johnson has stayed healthy.
There's at least one major drawback to Johnson's new situation: Although his team-first approach to his new role has impressed his coaches, NFL scouts might not have the same opinion.
Johnson considered turning pro after his junior season and even sought the input of the NFL Draft Advisory Board, which projected that he would get taken in the fourth or fifth round. Johnson had decided he didn't want to leave school unless he was likely to get picked in the first two rounds.
Rob Rang, a senior analyst for nfldraftscout.com, had rated Johnson as a potential third- or fourth-round pick before the season. Rang now considers him a fifth-round prospect even though Johnson should benefit from a weak senior running back class that doesn't feature any probable first-rounders other than Michigan State's Javon Ringer.
Even before the season, Rang was concerned about Johnson's slim hips and shoulders - as well as his lack of explosiveness. Even though Johnson has stayed healthy, Rang noted that the reduction in carries won't help Johnson answer any questions about his ability to withstand the NFL's physical pounding.
"The fact he has struggled with durability the last two years and has now seen his carries drop - that's what's going to ultimately drop him down the board to the mid-second day range," Rang said.
Johnson insists he's a better player now than he was two years ago, even if his numbers suggest otherwise. He said his knowledge of the game has improved "tenfold" since his remarkable 2006 season. Johnson said he has beefed up from 192 pounds to 205, and he now considers himself bigger and faster than ever. The question is whether those extra pounds will outweigh Johnson's reduced rushing totals in the minds of NFL scouts.
"I definitely believe I've helped myself," Johnson said. "How many guys can go from being a Heisman-caliber performer to having less than 10 carries a game and be OK with it and be happy? A lot of guys might not be able to be OK with that role. I truly am a team player."
If an NFL career doesn't work out, he will always have that wonderful January evening in Arizona. The sheer joy of capping an undefeated season and proposing to his bride in a matter of moments certainly was more than Johnson ever expected from his college career. Frankly, he didn't anticipate playing for any Division I program.
Johnson wasn't highly recruited despite rushing for a school-record 1,751 yards his senior year at Damien High School in San Dimas, Calif. Oregon and Oregon State contacted him, but neither school made him a recruiting priority. Johnson was preparing to play for a junior college until Boise State stepped in at the last minute.
Boise State actually was recruiting Patrick Chung, a defensive back from Rancho Cucamonga (Calif.) High who now stars for Oregon. A Boise State coach was watching film of the Rancho Cucamonga-Damien game when he noticed Johnson, who rushed for about 190 yards in that game.
"He asked Patrick, 'Is this guy worth going to see?' '' Johnson said. "He said, 'Definitely, go see him. He's right down the street.' They weren't even looking for running backs, and the next thing you know, within two weeks they offered me a scholarship. I finally found a school that wanted me as much as I wanted to play football."
Five years later, Johnson already has achieved more than he could have imagined. Maybe he doesn't have a 1,000-yard season in his immediate future, but he still has the memories of going undefeated and winning a BCS game. And he has the satisfaction of coming home every day to the love of his life.
"I was always a very low-key guy and not a party guy," Johnson said of the adjustment to college life as a married man. "The only difference is on weekends when I'd watch soccer or what not, it's replaced by watching 'Desperate Housewives.' When I'd go home and watch football, now it's flipping between 'The Hills' and the football game."
Johnson's wife has taken time off from school to work in property management for apartment complexes as a way of paying the bills until they know about whether a football career is in their future. Johnson will graduate in December with a major in entrepreneurial management, but he is hoping to play in the NFL.
Until then, Johnson and his wife are savoring the prospect of one more undefeated season, even if this one doesn't end with quite as much fanfare.
"It was definitely the time of my life, being that spotlight guy, seeing (myself on) billboards and seeing my name on ESPN," Johnson said. "It's definitely something I want to get back to. I'm working harder than ever. ... That's something that would be great, that I'd love to have happen again, but it doesn't have to happen for me to be happy."
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.