Johnson hoping move to fullback pays off as he pursues NFL career

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Senior Cody Johnson (11) faces off against Baylor (Daily Texan file photo from December 3, 2011).

Photo Credit: Lawrence Peart | Daily Texan Staff

Not many players that lead their team in a rushing as a junior suddenly switch positions before their senior season. But that’s what Cody Johnson did.

Johnson rushed for a team-high 592 yards in 2010 when Texas turned in its first losing season since 1997 before making the move to fullback before his final season as a Longhorn. Head coach Mack Brown and former offensive coordinator Greg Davis had unsuccessfully attempted to adjust the offense to emphasize the running game more. But when Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron were set to join Texas as freshmen last season, the Longhorns gained the personnel necessary to focus on its rushing attack more.

“When [Malcolm Brown] has the ball, he’s going to finish all the way to the end zone,” Johnson said of the rookie tailback last year. “For a freshman to come in and do what he’s doing, and as for Joe too, it’s just phenomenal.”

Johnson stepped aside and didn’t just help Brown and Bergeron by showing them the ropes when they arrived on the 40 Acres, but moved to a position where, at fullback, he’d be literally paving the way for their success.

Now Johnson, who is listed as the fifth-best fullback NFL Draft prospect by ESPN guru Mel Kiper Jr., is set to embark on a professional football career. Considering the fact that less than five fullbacks have been selected in three of the last four drafts, Johnson has a chance to not get picked this week. But if he signs with a team as an undrafted free agent, he’ll have a good shot to make an NFL roster, especially now that the 5-foot-11, 250-pounder is at a position that has maximized his draft stock.

“You help block for someone to score. You’re scoring with them,” Johnson said. “We’ve all got to be strong. You can’t break down.”

Johnson’s decision to switch spots on the football field should pay dividends for him as he pursues a professional career and paid off last year, as evidenced by how productive guys like Brown and Bergeron were in their first year at Texas. The Longhorns’ run game wouldn’t be poised for a great 2012 year and Johnson wouldn’t have as good of a chance to get drafted. This was not lost on Johnson.

“I think [my role] has been increased,” Johnson said last year. “I’ve been put in a new spot. I don’t think it’s been decreased at all. I’ve been given a better opportunity.”

Brown, before suffering from a turf toe injury for most of the second half of the year, was on pace to run for 1,000 yards last year at one point. When Bergeron filled in for the ailing Brown, he nearly ran for 200 yards, breaking out for 191 and three touchdowns in a 52-20 rout of Texas Tech. Texas rushed for a whopping 439 yards that game but, incredibly, wasn’t as many as the 441 the Longhorns racked up the week before in a 43-0 victory over Kansas.

Johnson didn’t get a single carry in either of those contests but was instrumental in allowing Texas to put up those gaudy numbers.

“That was a great move by the offensive staff putting him there,” said running back Fozzy Whittaker, who was also a senior last year. “He’s a smart player. He knew what to do and he knew how to get it done. Having somebody like that blocking for you always makes you more confident.”

As he spent most of last season blocking, Johnson had a career-low 48 carries, nearly three times as less than the previous year. One of his best came against Kansas State, when he broke through the line of scrimmage on a third-and-one play in the fourth quarter. With Texas trailing 17-10, Johnson had nothing but green grass in front of him but was caught from behind and settled for a 55-yard scamper. The Longhorns settled for a field goal on that drive and fell to the Wildcats, 17-13. But thanks in large part to Johnson, were able to run for more than 200 yards per game last year for the first time since 2007, 50 more than they averaged in 2010.

“We’re going to run the ball. That’s what we’re going to do no matter what,” Johnson said. “We try to control the clock. We try to keep our defense off the field. We want to be able to run it. That’s what we concentrate on. We have to run the ball to win.”

Thanks to Johnson and his move to fullback, Texas’ run game is better heading into next season (especially with Brown and Bergeron fully recovered from the injuries they suffered last season) and Johnson’s prospects of a professional career are in a better place.

Printed on Thursday, April 26, 2012 as: Johnson transitions to fullback, NFL