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How Duke Johnson turned himself into a dangerous pass-catcher

When the heat turned up, Duke Johnson turned his attention to a different position.

In between his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons at the University of Miami, Johnson would conduct his offseason workouts with a group of receivers that included current NFL pass-catchers Phillip Dorsett and Allen Hurns. His reasoning to run routes and catch passes rather than spend time with the team's other running backs was simple.

"There's not too many running back drills I don't know how to do," Johnson said.

From the moment he arrived at The U, a school that has produced a seemingly endless line of star running backs, Johnson knew his path to the NFL would require more than running the ball. He was Miami's bell cow, sure, running for as many as 29 times in a single game and setting the program's record for career rushing yards, but he steadily emerged as a player who had to be viewed as just as much of a threat on pass plays. His 38 receptions for 421 yards as a junior don't jump off the page, but they were significant in the eyes of NFL talent evaluators, who were enticed by the potential damage he could do as a dual threat if he wasn't relied upon so heavily as a runner.

Twelve games into his Cleveland Browns career, Johnson has done more than just display a knack for catching passes. He's emerged as one of the most productive at the position despite waiting until Week 3 to catch his first pass of the season.

"It's just my ability to create mismatches out of the backfield," Johnson said. "I knew it would be something I could continue to do. You start to see more and more guys getting used on third down and more and more guys starting to make big plays on third down."

Johnson's production, while minimal as a runner thus far, has gone far beyond third down, and it's led to increased playing time and trust from Cleveland's coaches.

"Duke is a guy who has showed he can do some damage with the football," Browns coach Mike Pettine said. "I think that is on us as a staff to find more creative ways to get him the football, whether that is in the run game or whether that's in the pass game. He is showing to be the guy we thought he was … We need to get him the ball more."

That philosophy played a part in Johnson's development all throughout his youth. His coaches wanted him in a position to get the ball in space as much as possible. That meant excessive time at wide receiver and defensive back before he settled at running back, a position where he could do a little bit of everything.

"Everyone wants to be Randy Moss," Johnson said.

Selected in the third round, Johnson said he got a semblance of his role with the Browns months before the 2015 NFL Draft. The Browns did their homework and laid out a plan during their pre-draft meetings with him. It jibed with what he'd heard from a number of other teams in the months leading into the draft.

When the ink was dry on Johnson's first NFL contract, it was on him to make it come to fruition. After a preseason in which he suffered multiple injuries, Johnson broke out in a big way with six catches Week 3 against the Raiders and a season-high nine for 85 yards and a touchdown one week later at San Diego.

The key for Johnson is his ability to draw mismatches and exploit them. On his longest catch of the season, Johnson faced man coverage from Arizona linebacker Kevin Minter, a pairing that promptly caught the eye of quarterback Josh McCown. McCown fired a quick slant at a wide-open Johnson, and the rookie did the rest en route to a 52-yard gain.

"In my situation, if you have to put a safety on me, then you have to put a linebacker on Gary Barnidge and that's another mismatch," Johnson said. "If I'm not directly making a play, I'm trying to make it some other way."

Johnson is reluctant to say he models his game after one particular player. He's his own person, his own personality. But in the months since he went from an amateur to a professional, Johnson has eyed the likes of LeSean McCoy, Dion Lewis and Shane Vereen as players in whom he sees similarities.

All three of those players have shown an ability to impact a game without taking a traditional number of hand-offs, and Johnson feels the same way about his future with the Browns.

"It really doesn't make a difference," Johnson said. "At this stage in the game, I realize and know my role. That's make plays when the ball is thrown to me or handed to me and create mismatches."

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