D'Ernest Johnson has learned a lot from watching Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt run for the last three seasons.
From juke moves, to reads, to finding ways to break tackles, not many running backs around the league carry the football the way Chubb and Hunt can. Johnson, a three-year veteran who signed with the Browns as an undrafted free-agent in 2019, has seen them do it up close as their backup.
Now, he'll be tasked with carrying the load of both running backs.
Johnson is the next healthy back on the roster after the Browns ruled Hunt and Chubb out for Thursday night against the Broncos. Hunt suffered a calf injury Sunday and was placed on Injured Reserve. Chubb, who suffered a calf injury in Week 5, was inactive for Week 6 and ruled out by coach Kevin Stefanski for Week 7. Both players have helped the Browns lead the league in nearly all rushing categories through six games.
The best rushing attack in the league is down its two top men, but Johnson is ready to keep their progress moving.
"It's a next-man-up mentality," Johnson said. "We just have to go out there and just execute. The mentality stays the same, and the standard is still high in the room."
Check out the best photos from the Browns game against the Cardinals yesterday by the Browns photo team
If Johnson starts, it will be the first of his NFL career, one that seemed improbable three years ago.
Johnson barely received any NFL interest after finishing his college career at South Florida in 2018 as the program's all-time leader with 4,186 all-purpose yards, including 1,796 career rushing yards. He was out of football entirely once the 2018 season began and earned his paychecks as a fisherman on the waters off Key West, Florida, catching mahi-mahi.
Johnson, though, still aspired to play football for a living rather than catch fish. The Alliance of American Football offered him an avenue when the league began in 2019, and even though the league didn't complete its first season due to financial troubles, Johnson still extended his football future — he finished second of all its players in rushing and scrimmage yards when the league folded in April 2019.
NFL opportunities awaited Johnson in the months after the league ended. The Browns were one of several teams who offered Johnson a minicamp tryout and called him back to Cleveland for training camp when a depth chart spot opened. He cracked the final roster that season and has been active for every game since then, primarily contributing as a special teams player and logging 19 kick returns for 480 yards. He's also totaled 40 career carries for 198 yards, averaging a steady 5 yards per carry.
The spotlight, though, has never been on Johnson at the NFL level. That changes Thursday.
"I'm very excited," he said. "First time getting a chance to start, it's always a dream come true."
While Johnson has never starred as a feature back before in his career, he's still shown glimpses of explosiveness and vision that have led to production. The best example was during Week 4 last season, when he rushed 13 times for a team-leading 95 yards — including a 28-yard run — in a win over the Dallas Cowboys.
In other games, Chubb or Hunt have been available to carry the bulk of rushes, but the Browns have seen Johnson look strong behind-the-scenes and are confident he can handle the work Thursday and beyond, if needed.
"You guys saw D'Ernest was there last season at times, and he was very dependable and very accountable," Stefanski said. "He broke some long runs for us and can really catch the ball. I have a ton of faith in D'Ernest."
After watching the top level guys in front of him and continuing to develop his own talents, Johnson has faith in himself, too.
"I've learned a lot," he said. "We all have confidence. We just have to go out there and execute. That's every week — nothing changes."