D’Ernest Johnson’s versatility is paying off for USF

In just two games, sophomore D’Ernest Johnson broke the school’s 17-year-old record for the most receiving touchdowns and yards by a running back. PHOTO PROVIDED BY MATTHEW PASKERT/FSVIEW

One swift glance at the stat sheet is all one needs to understand the impact D’Ernest Johnson has had on USF’s offense this season. 

In only two games, the sophomore has risen to become USF’s leader in touchdown receptions (four) and receiving yards (188). 

The only oddity? Johnson isn’t a receiver — he’s the Bulls’ backup running back.

“I’ve been active a lot,” Johnson said. “They use me in the passing game, because I’ve got good hands.”

Good might be an understatement. 

Johnson’s yardage and touchdown count in eight quarters topple those of any running back USF has had in its 17-year program history.

Not even program-greats like Andre Hall, Dyral McMillan or even Marlon Mack can say they’ve done that.

While some might be troubled that Johnson has been quarterback Quinton Flowers’ favorite target thus far, coach Willie Taggart is not of such a mind.

To Taggart, who convinced the former four-star recruit to sign with USF last year over Louisville, West Virginia and Minnesota, Johnson is just an additional weapon for his still-growing, up-tempo offense.

“I would argue with anybody on our staff that D’Ernest by far has the best hands on the football team,” Taggart said. “They’re just nice and soft and the kid’s just a ballplayer — a good ballplayer.”

During Saturday’s game at No. 9 Florida State, Taggart said Johnson really showed his worth at the start of the fourth quarter by calling his own play.

On previous possessions, Taggart said the Immokalee native had noticed whenever he opted to put Johnson on a wheel route, FSU’s defenders would focus on the receivers downfield and leave him quarantined on the outside. 

If Flowers simply lobbed him the ball, Johnson knew he would be able to earn a big gain.

“I told coach the cornerback was trailing the receiver and I said the wheel route would be open,” Johnson recalled. “If we get a chance, throw that.”

Trailing by 17 points in an eventual 34-14 loss, Taggart gave him the nod and drew it up.

Sure enough, it worked.

Pinned on his own 29-yard line, Flowers dropped back, turned to his left and fluttered a pass into the hands of Johnson. Just as he had predicted, most of FSU’s defenders were flushed to the opposite side of the field.

Without hesitating, Johnson hustled down the sideline untouched for a 71-yard touchdown.

“As a coach, when you can get a player to come over and communicate to you what’s going on in the game, that’s big,” Taggart said. “We don’t have that often. We didn’t get that often, and here you have a sophomore that’s in there and he’s all locked in to the game and what’s going on. 

“When you can have that, that’s kind of like the best information you can get when you get it from the player that’s out there and doing it. And not only did he call for it, he made it happen.”

The team plans to further capitalize on Johnson’s abilities starting with Saturday’s game at Maryland. 

On Tuesday, Taggart hinted at giving Johnson an opportunity to return punts with sophomore Tajee Fullwood. There’s also a good chance Johnson will be on the field the same time as Mack during certain offensive plays to give the Bulls an additional threat.

“D’Ernest is a big-time football player for us that’s going to have a hell of a career here, and he can run, too,” Taggart said. “I know he’s caught a lot of balls, but we continue to expect big things from him.”

USF at Maryland

When: Saturday, noon

Where: Byrd Stadium, College Park, Maryland

TV/Radio: ESPNU, 820-AM