Gus Johnson: 2015’s Most Overlooked Running Back

[Update: The Cowboys signed Gus Johnson on July 28th.]

In a running back class that is being heralded as the deepest and most talented since 2008, it was inevitable that this would happen.

As we climb over ourselves to settle the Todd Gurley versus Melvin Gordon debate, or try to make sense of the tier behind them,1 there’s something else happening here: very talented running backs are slipping through the cracks.

Enter Stephen F. Austin (SFA) running back Gus Johnson, who had a terrific career for the Lumberjacks and quietly earned a Combine invite (spoiler: that’s a big deal). Let’s explore why this small-school runner could be the perfect lottery ticket for NFL and dynasty GMs alike.

The Outstanding Career

Looking back at my visualizing the college careers of 2015 running backs article, Gus Johnson was one of only six running backs to plot above the elite-RB trend line in his age-19 season; the others were Gurley, Ameer Abdullah, TJ Yeldon, Duke Johnson and Terrell Watson. Here’s a quick overview of what Johnson did in his four seasons:

PLAYERAgeGRu AttRu YdsRu AvgRu TDRecRc YdsRc AvgRc TDRu Yd/G
Gus Johnson18.410451944.3356012019.4
Gus Johnson19.4101549546.21414866.1195.4
Gus Johnson20.41117610616.011211085.1096.5
Gus Johnson21.41325616836.623171659.70129.5

Just to emphasize how outstanding that age-19 season was, if I filter my database for 19 year old runners, who weigh more than 210 pounds and had similar production to Gus Johnson, I get Cedric Benson, Kevin Smith, Marcus Lattimore, Gurley, Maurice Clarett and Knile Davis. Basically, to be as good as Johnson was at 19 and then sustain it through the remainder of his career is pretty unique. And if you want to try to discredit his production due to the lower level competition, I’ll point out that his offensive line was probably proportionally talented to the defensive players, which would seem to offset any advantage and leave Johnson’s talent as the differentiating factor.

More than just a one year wonder, Johnson was also really exceptional in his age-21 campaign. To borrow from my RotoViz Radio co-host, Matt Freedman, a back of the napkin computation of Johnson’s 2014 workhorse metric has him accounting for 84.1 percent of SFA’s non-quarterback rushing yards and 95.8 percent of the non-quarterback rushing touchdowns. In summary, Gus Johnson’s on-field profile is everything we could want from a late round, big bodied running back.

About that Physique…

To understand what type of athlete Johnson is, I sorted my database by players:

  • who weigh within 10 pounds of Johnson’s 215-pound frame,
  • who ran their forty yard dash within 0.1 seconds of Johnson’s,
  • who completed their three-cone drill within 0.1 seconds of Johnson,
  • who were no more than a year older or younger than Johnson in their final college season

Then, just for good measure, I trimmed the fat by focusing on career rushing yards per game. This was the resulting group:

PLAYERSCHOOLoverallF AgeWt40Yard3ConeCar RuYD/G
Ka'Deem CareyArizona11721.22074.77.08117.8
P.J. HillWisconsin270222224.637.09106.5
Mewelde MooreTulane11921.42094.657.0799.2
Gus JohnsonStephen F. Austin27021.42154.77.0988.5
Mark IngramAlabama28212154.627.1383.6
Ladell BettsIowa5622.32204.627.0680.1
Marion GriceArizona State20121.72084.677.0669.8
Mike DavisSouth Carolina12321.92174.61765.9
Alvin PearmanVirginia12722.42084.637.0752
Jon CornishKansas27022.22064.627.0946.8
George WinnCincinnati27022.12184.757.1346.2
C.J. AndersonCalifornia27021.92244.607.1545.4

Of the 11 comparables on this list, besides Johnson, four have accumulated 1,000+ yards from scrimmage in a season: Mewelde Moore, Mark Ingram, Ladell Betts and C.J. Anderson. Elswhere, Kadeem Carey looks like a promising young player who could be the heir to the Matt Forte throne in Chicago.  A few other names that were narrow misses because they were much older than Johnson in their final season are Alfred Morris and Branden Oliver. I wouldn’t say that Johnson’s similarity to these players is indicative of elite athleticism, but rather it shows that similar players have been very useful when given the opportunity.

Overall, I think Gus Johnson’s combination of young dominance, respectable athleticism, Combine-worthiness and workhorse tendencies make him a top late round running back to monitor. Since there are no highlight reels of Gus Johnson SFA on youtube, I “made my own” by hacking some videos and embedding them in this article. Here are the plays that would be on his highlight reel, if it existed. Not bad, huh?


Jon Moore is a contributor at RotoViz and a cohost of Rotoviz Radio – A Fantasy Football Podcast.  Continue this conversation with him on TwitterGoogle+ or Facebook.

  1. Jay Ajayi, Tevin Coleman, Duke Johnson, Ameer Abdullah, and TJ Yeldon.  (back)