Miami legend Duke Johnson has a phenomenal breakout performance with Dolphins

Duke Johnson — Courtesy: Image by: USA TODAY Sports

There was a familiar sound at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday. The crowd of 66,035 repeatedly yelled “DUUUUUUUUUKE” throughout the game.

Duke Johnson, playing in just his second game as a Miami Dolphin, got the start, first carry, and ran for 3 yards.

And then, the Miami Dolphins gave him another, and then another, and another, until he had 22—by far the most in his NFL career—and began to form the foundation of Miami’s 31-24 win against the New York Jets.

For at least one day, Johnson looked like the same player he was when he played for the Miami Hurricanes, or maybe even when was the star player for Miami Norland Senior High School just down the street in Miami Gardens.

“It just reminded me of college,” Johnson said. “It means a lot. I think being from here, it means a lot.”

Johnson put together the best game of his career. He ran 22 times for 107 yards and scored two touchdowns—all career bests. He even added one catch for 20 yards. 

The 20-yard reception wasn’t surprising at all. Johnson has built a reputation as a strong third-down back throughout his career, averaging 3.4 catches per game in his first six years.

Johnson’s previous career-high in carries was 16 and his previous career-high in rushing yards was 78. The Houston Texans cut him in February and no NFL team gave him a real shot in the league this season.

Johnson was cut from the Jacksonville Jaguars’ practice squad in September and had an unsuccessful tryout with the Carolina Panthers later that month. The Dolphins (7-7) put him on their practice squad in October, gave him a quick chance against the Jets (3-11) in November, and then sent him back to the practice squad until an emergency occurred last week.

Running backs Myles Gaskin, Phillip Lindsay, and Salvon Ahmed all tested positive for COVID-19 in the last two weeks, and even though Ahmed and Gaskin were available to play on Sunday, Johnson got the starting nod due to his position as the top tailback available for practice last week. For the first time in his career, Duke Johson had to be a workhorse.

“For me, it was just doing what the team needed from me,” he said.

The result of this game might just have been the discovery of a much-needed No. 1 running back for the Miami Dolphins.

The Dolphins ran a total of 182 yards on Sunday, nearly 50 more than they have in any other game this season, while averaging more than 5 yards per carry for the first time in 2021. 

“Duke Johnson entered the weekend averaging 6.2 yards per touch in his career—sixth-best among active players—yet his longest run Sunday was for just 12 yards. Johnson was methodical and powerful, finding holes efficiently and running through tacklers for extra yards, and it meant he rushed for 22 yards more than expected,” according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

For comparison, Gaskin has run fewer yards than expected this season. 

“He definitely gave us a spark,” quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said.

This is exactly what the Dolphins needed.

All of South Florida knew a game like this was entirely possible, as Johnson is known for scoring five touchdowns in Norland’s 2011 state–championship victory to soon after becoming a local legend when he played for the University of Miami and ran for more than 3,500 yards throughout three seasons.

Wide receiver Isaiah Ford knew it too. He played for the Virginia Tech Hokies in 2014 and was placed on the wrong side of a 249-yard game by Johnson.

He was glad to share the sideline with him on Sunday’s game.

“I’ve seen that a couple of times,” Ford said. “It was awesome to watch.”

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