Star Sophomores: Duke Johnson vs. Shadrach Thornton
By Eric Russell
Both Duke Johnson of Miami and N.C. State's Shadrach Thornton had solid freshman campaigns last season. Johnson wowed fans with his 135 yard performance in his first game. Thornton also shined in his first college game. The 6-foot-1 running back ran for 145 yards and two touchdowns against The Citadel.
Thornton and Johnson both split time in the backfield and played similar roles for their respective teams. Johnson walked away from the season as the ACC freshman of the year in both the media and coaches polls. Thornton may not have had the accolades like Johnson, but he was a star in his own right.
The two face greater expectations as sophomores. Who will live up to them best?
The Case For Duke Johnson
Now that Mike James is out of the picture, Johnson will have a greater role in the Hurricanes offense. That bodes well for his potential to use his speed for big plays.
Reports say Johnson also added 10-plus pounds of muscle during the offseason. He is the smaller of the two backs at only 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds. The added pounds will be helpful if Al Golden plans to increase his third-down usage. Johnson was only utilized as a rusher three times in situations where the Hurricanes face third or fourth down and less than six — his counterpart, Thornton, only had 18 such rushes. That number likely will increase this season.
The extra body mass is good, but Johnson's biggest weapon is the Hurricanes' offensive line. Miami's entire offensive line will be back for the 2013 season. Not only is the line experienced, they are talented. Each member of the line has the ability to dominate their position, especially Sentrel Henderson and Brandon Linder.
The Case For Shadrach Thornton
Thornton will still be forced to split carries with running back Tony Creecy, but that doesn't mean his production will suffer. New head coach Dave Doeren is fond of Thornton and will like to utilize him more in his up-tempo offense.
Also working in Thornton's favor is the lack of depth behind he and Creecy. The depth chart at running back is full of new signees. Doeren has said N.C. State will use multiple-back formations.
Thornton has the potential to be a 1,000-yard rusher if he gets enough carries. At times last season N.C. State relied on the pass and forgot about the run game. This season, with Mike Glennon gone, the chances of that happening are slimmer.
The Winner: Duke Johnson
Johnson is too talented. Johnson's vision and hard-running style give him the edge. He was already tough to bring down before he put on extra pounds, and now the task of stopping him will be more difficult.
Thornton will be running behind an offensive line that has to replace three seniors and learn a new offensive scheme. Johnson may have one of the best lines in the ACC.
Not only can he avoid the sophomore slump, some are saying he has the potential to be a Heisman candidate. If he continues to run the way he did in his freshman campaign he will find himself in the Heisman talks.