The Lion Triumvirate

October 22, 2002
The Lion Triumvirate
by Keith Weiland

Following last season’s debacle at running back, Penn State head coach Joe Paterno must’ve said to himself, in his best Mufasa-like voice, Remember who we are. After dumping a running back-by committee approach, one that contributed to a poor five-win season, Paterno anointed Larry Johnson as the heir to the rushing throne.

The newest Nittany Lion king roared across the Pridelands on Saturday. Johnson set the Penn State school rushing record for a single game with 257 yards. He did so on a 27-yard touchdown run to conclude the first series of the third quarter. Rather than risk injury adding to his totals, Johnson watched the rest of the game from the bench.

Put aside for a moment that the record came against Northwestern, the team which owned the 117th ranked rushing defense in the country and started three sophomores and four freshmen in their defensive front seven. Instead, think back through Penn State’s illustrious past and remember how many talented running backs played for the Lions. Johnson is now king of them all. His single game rushing total surpassed Curt Warner’s mark set back in 1981, before Warner went on to have a productive career with the Seahawks. Johnson also bested any single game total by guys like Franco Harris, Blair Thomas, Ki-Jana Carter and Curtis Enis.

Johnson was able to accomplish this feat because of his feet. Quick and slippery, they are not common among men who weigh 225 pounds and stand 6’2″ tall. Johnson is a complete back, able to patiently read his blocks, burst through a hole, avoid tacklers, and use his terrific vision and balance to gain positive yardage. Johnson is also showing off his soft hands as the second leading receiver for Penn State this season. In the past, Johnson’s quick feet and slippery legs were put to use returning kickoffs.

So why aren’t more people talking about Johnson already? Maybe you can blame it on the recent slump of first round Penn State running backs in the NFL. The last decade or so wasn’t kind to them, as Thomas, Carter, and Enis all failed to meet draft day expectations, be it because of injury or ineffectiveness.

As for Johnson, it isn’t certain that he will find success at the next level, either. If holes were plugged on Saturday, he was able to use his speed to bounce outside, but don’t expect that to happen too often in the NFL. With half a season yet to play, peg Johnson as a second rounder for now. Because of his talent and size, also peg Johnson as someone whom Texans General Manager Charley Casserly might consider if the opportunity presents itself around his first pick in the third round.

Johnson is not alone, of course, among those with NFL ability playing for Paterno. Two more players who stand out are his defensive linemen, Jimmy Kennedy and Michael Haynes. They are a lethal one-two punch, not unlike the top five tandem seen last year at North Carolina in Ryan Sims and Julius Peppers.

Kennedy is an enormous defensive tackle (6’5″ 316) that appears to be a natural to plug the middle in the Texans’ 3-4 scheme. His overall potential as a top ten pick in the 2003 draft is boosted by his combination of size and speed. Kennedy has the width and strength to handle NFL double teams, and he also shows the ability to penetrate the offensive line up the middle. Once in the backfield — and this happens with uncanny regularity — it’s like Kennedy has turbojets. His upfield pressure created his defense’s only interception of the game.

Haynes (6’3″ 268) is the beneficiary of Kennedy’s double teams and always looks like he has on turbojets. He has the strength to man the D-line and power his way to a sack, like he did against a Northwestern left tackle on Saturday. He also has the outside speed rush to get to the quarterback. Haynes is at or near the NCAA Division 1-A lead in sacks, tackles for losses, and forced fumbles.

At his size though, Haynes is probably too small to play end for the Texans. While he certainly has the rushing ability to play outside linebacker, his coverage skills are a major question mark. Haynes’ talent as a 4-3 defensive end may make him too hot of a commodity for the Texans if they wait and take their chances on him in the third or fourth round of the draft.

Tune In, Drop Out… Hmm, maybe this section should become the weekly Charles Rogers vigil.

Charles Rogers   Rogers  

Wisconsin @ Michigan State, 6pm, ESPN2 – Now, don’t anyone panic just yet, but Rogers has started a new streak. After going an NCAA record thirteen weeks in a row with a touchdown, the Spartan receiver has now played in two consecutive games without hitting paydirt. Look for that trend to reverse itself against the Badgers. Speaking of the Badgers, another vigil is taking place in Madison… the one for the return of WR Lee Evans from injury. Will this be the week he finally takes the field? If not, don’t flip the channel while Wisconsin has the ball or else you’ll miss cousins Al and Ben Johnson flipping pancakes on the offensive line.

Keith Weiland will not dress in drag and do the hula.