GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The request came out of nowhere.
Would you be willing to move to running back?
Chris Johnson came to Florida in 2011 as a safety but had been playing linebacker when Gators coach Will Muschamp came to him in the spring and asked him that question. He had no idea it was coming and wasn’t sure what to make of it at first.
But the more he thought about it, the more he liked it.
“It was shocking at first, but at the same time I’m happy,” Johnson said. “I just want to play football and be on the field. I guess I have to adjust to it and learn and whatever can get me on the field quicker I have to go with it.
“For somebody to can think I can play offense, I took it as a compliment.”
Johnson was a two-way player at Ocala, Fla./Trinity Catholic, starring at safety but also playing running back. He was recruited as a safety, though he was moved to linebacker shortly after arriving at UF.
He played in every game last year, mainly as a standout special-teams player. But he’s a classic tweener because of his size – 5-foot-9, 205 pounds – and that kept him from really making an impact at linebacker or safety.
The situation at running back in the spring was uncertain. Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey had graduated and the staff was being careful with Mike Gillislee because of his ankle. Since freshman Matt Jones wasn’t enrolling until July, Mack Brown was the only scholarship back who wasn’t limited.
That’s when Muschamp approached Johnson and tight end Omarius Hines about moving.
“We liked his film as a running back out of high school,” Muschamp said. “We looked at where he was fitting. He was kind of a tweener between a linebacker and a safety. Didn’t really know where that was headed and then obviously looking at our running back situation, having some injuries, we felt like he could be a guy that could be really valuable on that side and has proved to be that. We like him as a running back.”
Until he got to Florida, Johnson was always a running back. He played defense, too, but he was a running back first through Pop Warner, junior high and high school. It wasn’t a big adjustment when he returned there in the spring, and he took advantage of the increased reps while running as the third back behind Gillislee and Brown.
He’s fighting for more reps now, though, because of the addition of Jones, who was one of the nation’s top running back recruits. He’s working at fullback, too, and could be used more in the passing game.
“Of course I want to play but at the same time I have to be a team player first,” Johnson said. “Whoever they think should get more (carries) I won’t get caught up in that. Whenever they call my name I’ve got to be ready.”
The Gators are calling his name plenty on special teams. Muschamp said Johnson is UF’s special teams MVP and that might be where he makes more of an impact this season.
That is more important than anything he’ll do on offense, Muschamp said.
“Special teams are critical, especially when you’re talking in terms of punt and kickoff,” Muschamp said. “Those two units can change the game either for or against you pretty quickly. So special teams here take precedence over either offense or defense and our guys understand that. [Special teams coordinator] D.J. [Durkin] has got full reign on personnel in any situation. We’ll rest them on offense or defense as opposed to special teams.”
That’s fine with Johnson. He’s happy with his situation, much more so than he probably would have been had he remained on defense.
“You have to go with change and adjust,” he said. “Everything’s been positive so far.”