AUBURN, Ala. — Early in the second quarter of Auburn football’s regular-season matchup against Georgia in November, Kerryon Johnson took a buck sweep handoff from Jarrett Stidham.
Johnson turned upfield and saw a Georgia defender straight ahead of him. He stopped, took a small step backward and bounced his run to the outside. The Bulldogs weren’t ready for it. Johnson zoomed ahead past the sticks and was knocked out of bounds.
As Johnson made his run, CBS color commentator Gary Danielson exclaimed, “That’s Le’Veon Bell!”
— Auburn Proud (@SkyeUnderwood) November 12, 2017
The comparisons to the Pittsburgh Steelers star running back were there for most of Johnson’s 2017 regular season — one in which he finished with 1,320 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns — but they officially became mainstream that Saturday in November.
During the Georgia game, Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com saw the resemblance.
“He has a running style that’s reminiscent of Le’Veon Bell,” Jeremiah wrote several days later. “He’s patient and incorporates a slight skip before finding a crease and exploding through the line of scrimmage. He also shows the ability to drop his shoulder and power through contact.”
After the game — a 40-17 upset of the No. 1 Bulldogs — Auburn junior linebacker Deshaun Davis added more fuel to the comparison fire.
“Kerryon’s a great running back,” Davis said. “He can run the ball, he can catch the ball out of the backfield. He kind of reminds me of Le’Veon Bell. I tell him that all the time.”
None of that was by accident, though.
Johnson’s tweaked running style in the 2017 season — one in which he would slow down, almost to a full stop, before hitting holes full speed — was the product of focused training in the offseason.
“This year, I really felt like I’ve put a lot of time in this offseason and watched a lot of people run the ball,” Johnson said. “The easiest way to run is to not get tackled, and when your blockers are blocking people, you don’t get tackled. So you’ve got to let those guys get out in front of you.”
One of the people Johnson studied closely, of course, was Bell. It helped the former NFL rushing champion was a star on Johnson’s favorite team — the Steelers.
“He’s the guy — everybody knows when you watch him, he’ll literally stop running,” Johnson said. “He’ll just be standing there and let his guys do the work. I said, ‘Well if it works for him, surely it can work for me here.’ It has this year. I’m glad I watched that.”
The Steelers selected Bell in the second round in 2013 out of Michigan State, where he broke out in first full season as the No. 1 running back. He parlayed that impressive junior season with the Spartans into a high draft pick.
Some NFL draft analysts think Johnson could do the same after winning the SEC Offensive Player of the Year and finishing ninth in the Heisman Trophy race.
“He isn’t Bell … yet it’s the name that springs to mind watching the way he waited behind the [line of scrimmage] for the opportunity to emerge to make a big gain,” Rob Staton of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer wrote last month. “I’ve watched Johnson a few times this season … with every performance, you just get more and more excited. Physical, agile, a capable pass-catcher with some all-round ability. He is one of the best players to emerge in 2017 as a legit pro prospect.”
That patience and vision behind the line of scrimmage has made Johnson a popular name outside of Auburn. He used those skills to great effect in 2017 and became one of the best running backs in college football.
“He tempos his runs really well,” offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said. “I think he does a great job and I think the goes back to being a smart guy that studies film. He understands what the fronts look like, and how we’re trying to block those fronts … It’s working well for him and for us, and we’re glad he’s doing it that way.”
But making the switch to Bell’s famous style wasn’t an easy one for Johnson — both mentally and physically.
For a running back, it can be difficult to learn how to slow down, especially in a league that features plenty of lightning-fast defenses.
“When you’re a run-heavy offense, a lot of people want to bring an extra guy in the box to do this, so you know sometimes there is a guy maybe not being blocked at all,” Johnson said. “Sometimes you just want to hurry up and say, ‘I got to get something before they get me.’ But I think if you stay patient and let the blocks form, it works out better for you.”
On top of that mental adjustment, Johnson said he had to transform his body in the offseason. Bell is bigger at 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, and Johnson didn’t believe he could make the change at first.
“I used to think, ‘Well, he can do that because he’s big. It doesn’t take him much to fall forward, to get a couple extra yards. Even if he gets stuffed, he’s 225 pounds. He can fall forward.’ So I used to think, ‘I’m not that big. I won’t be able to do it.’ It’s scary to just stop your feet and wait for it to develop, but all it means is when you see the hole, then you really got to hit it.
“That’s what I worked on this offseason was building up that acceleration quickly and getting to the top speed, and it’s worked … With [strength] coach [Ryan] Russell, a lot of days in the summer working on acceleration with chain sprints and heel sprints. It took a lot. But to see it pay off is very satisfying.”
Johnson kept that momentum rolling past the now-famous Georgia game into the Iron Bowl, where his patience paid off for several key runs against Alabama’s top-ranked run defense.
That made Jeremiah double-down on his comparison to the Steelers star.
“He showed he’s a complete back against Alabama,” Jeremiah wrote late last month. “He also had some impressive runs where he was able to pick up at least a few yards when there were no holes open for him.”
That transformation turned Johnson into a feared SEC playmaker and a potential breakout star in a stacked class of draftable running backs.
Whether Johnson stays at Auburn for a senior season or joins Bell in the NFL, he’ll have confidence heading into 2018 after seeing all that tough training pay off.
“It’s no coincidence that this was my hardest-working summer, and this is the best season I’ve had,” Johnson said. “That just comes with the work. I’m glad I got to see that pay off, and not it’s a lesson moving forward and something I learned.”