UB running back Jordan Johnson finally the starter in a talented backfield

Johnson leads the backfield with Hawkins and Hosey as the backups


 Buffalo football running backs coach Matt Simon knew years ago he had a star in the making.

The Bulls’ prosperous history of running backs has been evident for the better part of a decade. It started with current NFL backs James Starks and Branden Oliver, and continued last season with All-Mid-American Conference back Anthone Taylor.

Now, the starting job is in the hands of Jordan Johnson, a local product from Sweet Home High School and rising senior that has been waiting his turn to take over the starting job.

“It’s been four years,” Johnson said, “so I finally get to start.”

Johnson remembers watching Starks play for his hometown Bulls when he was just in middle school. He was teammates with Oliver for two seasons, but never played a game with him due to redshirting and a season-ending elbow injury.

And Johnson has mostly been a backup to Taylor, who had an impressive career in his own right, the past two seasons. With Taylor’s graduation, Johnson is the expected starter come opening day next fall.

“He’s an experienced veteran player,” Simon said. “We have high expectations for Jordan. He’s earned his spurs in this program. He’s a journeyman who’s spent a lot of time on special teams. I think he can be a premier back in the MAC. A lot of people in Buffalo should be excited about him.”

Johnson first caught Simons’ attention during the Bulls’ 2014 matchup against Baylor. Simon said Johnson ran with efficiency and power. More importantly, he rose to the occasion against the much bigger competitor.

There wasn’t much to get excited about during Buffalo’s 63-21 loss to the Bears that year. Johnson was the lone exception. Then a sophomore, Johnson ran for 97 yards on 20 carries. He even broke off a 35-yard run on one of the top defenses in the country.

Johnson was a backup to Taylor and missed a few games with an injury that season, and managed just 361 yards and one touchdown. He did however average 4.9 yards per carry that showed off his potential.

In a bit of bittersweet serendipity, the oft-injured back got his first full-time opportunity after Taylor dealt with lingering ankle problems during the middle of MAC play last season. That gave Johnson a chance to prove what Simon believed he could be.

In his final six games of the 2015 season, Johnson averaged 84 yards per game, including an exceptional two-game stretch against Ohio and Miami Ohio in which he ran for 147 and 123 yards, respectively, and found the end zone twice in each game.

He finished the season with 811 yards – just 18 behind Taylor – but a team-high 12 rushing touchdowns.

Johnson’s a physical back. Simon calls Johnson a “punisher” when he runs from north to south. He’s the tallest back on the roster and is one of the heaviest as well. He has the tools and the experience to be a star for UB.

But he knows he can’t do it alone.

Buffalo’s next running back is Jonathan Hawkins, a rising sophomore. He is expected to be Johnson’s backup on the depth chart. Simon describes Hawkins as a player with “immense talent” and is expecting a better version of him than what he saw last year.

Hawkins is currently sidelined for spring practice due to minor shoulder surgery, but it will not affect his status for the first game next September.

It’s good, because Simon has high praise for him.

“He may be one of the most extraordinary players we’ve ever had in this program,” Simon said.

Johnson seems content with his backup as well.

“He’s going to be a good player,” Johnson said. “He’ll be the next great one coming up.”

He’s not the only running back who’s receiving praise. The Bulls locked up Kameron Pickett, who was one of the best high school running backs in Georgia, in this year’s recruiting class. Simon thinks Pickett is another star in the making, but hopes he can redshirt this season because of the depth already on the team.

Behind Johnson and Hawkins will be freshman Gary Hosey, who redshirted this past season. He may be Buffalo’s most physical runner and possesses running back speed in a fullback’s body.

Simon is convinced this backfield could be as good as the 2013 backfield of Oliver, Taylor and Devin Campbell. He even thinks Hawkins and Johnson can form a better tandem than what Johnson and Taylor did last season.

Like Johnson’s career up to this point, only time will tell.

Jordan Grossman is the co-senior sports editor and can be reached at jordan.grossman@ubspectrum.com. Follow him at @jordanmgrossman