For somebody so thoughtful and well-spoken who comes from humble roots, Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson doesn’t mind plainly pointing out the obvious.
Six games into his first NFL season as a starter, he is feeling pretty darned exceptional.
“I’m in a very confident groove right now,” Johnson said.
He is the next dual-threat task awaiting the Seattle Seahawks as the two NFC West rivals meet for Sunday Night Football in Glendale, Arizona.
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With his combined 833 rushing and receiving yards, the second-year professional leads the league in yards from scrimmage, just ahead of Dallas rookie Ezekiel Elliott (801). Johnson’s eight touchdowns are also an NFL high this season.
Johnson has had 100 or more yards from scrimmage in each game this season, a franchise record to start a year. He finished with 138 total yards in the team’s 28-3 victory over the New York Jets on Monday.
“He’s been fantastic,” Arizona coach Bruce Arians said. “I think he still has a lot of room to grow.”
Johnson carries a much different build than most running backs. Throughout high school and college, he was a wiry 6-foot-1, much like a Marcus Allen.
In fact, much of the reason Johnson landed at an FCS school was because of his frame. Many schools looked at the lithe teenager and saw him as a college wide receiver. Johnson held true to wanting to stay at running back.
“I wasn’t as muscular, and a lot of the colleges that were recruiting me and talking to me … didn’t know where to put me,” Johnson said. “It was kind of a gray area. They kind of overlooked me.”
The Iowa native chose Northern Iowa over Illinois State. While there, he set the school’s all-time career rushing record (4,682 yards).
It’s one thing to gain all those yards against smaller universities. It’s another thing to make the jump to NFL stardom. And after he declared for the NFL Draft in 2015, the one criticism leveled against Johnson was that he was not a physical running back at the point of attack.
“One of the things I heard coming out … is that I wasn’t a physical downhill runner because of my size,” Johnson said. “I definitely feel like I put that to rest with the way I’ve been playing.”
Arizona selected Johnson in the third round of the NFL draft. He opened last season as the fourth-string running back. But he made his first touch a memorable one in the season opener, taking a reception 55 yards for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints.
After starter Chris Johnson suffered a season-ending leg injury in early December, David Johnson took over the workhorse role in Week 12. Over the final five games of the regular season, his 657 total yards were most in the NFL.
His final start of 2015 came against the Seahawks, who held him to 25 rushing yards on 11 carries. He did chip in with three catches for 34 yards in the Cardinals’ loss.
“Johnson is really good. He’s better than he was last year,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “He’s more experienced, and I think they’re spotting him more pointedly to utilize him.
“He’s the most explosive player on their team right now.”
Now 6-1 and 224 pounds, Johnson has filled out to handle the collection of hits that comes with being a starting NFL tailback. He is third in the league in rushing with 568 yards (behind Elliott’s 703) and could become the first non-FBS graduate since Kansas City’s Christian Okoye (NAIA Azusa Pacific) in 1989 to become an NFL rushing champion.
“I really had to become a running back for this offense,” Johnson said. “With the help of Chris, Dre (Andre Ellington) and Stepf (Stepfan Taylor), those guys really helped me get comfortable and … become an NFL running back.”