Johnson Comfortable in Switch to Offense

Johnson Comfortable in Switch to Offense

Chris Johnson was originally surprised when head coach Will Muschamp suggested him moving to running back. He signed with Florida as a safety and was starting to enjoy the idea of being a big-hitter in the secondary for the Gators. That switched with one conversation. As he thought about it more, Johnson took it as a compliment. The Florida coaches wanted to move him to make an impact.

"It was shocking at first," Chris Johnson said. "At the same time, I feel like I just want to play football and be on the field. I've got to adjust to it and learn. However I can get on the field, I'll go with it."

That has been his mindset since coming to campus. Johnson just wants to get on the field. He just didn't expect a move to offense to be the best way for that to happen. The sophomore was focused on putting together a solid season as a backup safety and on special teams while starting to work for potentially winning a job as a starting safety in 2013.

The conversation happened before spring practice. While it did take him by surprise, Johnson did have a say in the decision.

"(Muschamp) didn't say he was putting me there, but he just wanted to see how I liked it and try me there," said Johnson, who claims a 4.40 40 time. "I told him I liked it, and it just went from there."

Johnson has played running back for as far back as he can remember. He played it some at Trinity Catholic High School before making it to Gainesville. He admitted that the thought of playing running back at Florida crossed his mind when he signed with the Gators, but he tried to focus on his job in the secondary.

The goal was to see the field as fast as possible. He'll have an opportunity to do that at a different position this fall.

"I'm still learning and working at my new position—running back," Johnson said. "You have to go with change and adjust. Everything has been positive so far."

He didn't see much playing time at safety in 2011, but Johnson created a niche for himself on special teams as a freshman. He recorded eight tackles on the season while appearing in all 13 games. Johnson was named Special Teams Player of the Game for his two-tackle effort in the win over Kentucky last season.

That role on special teams will still be there. Muschamp wants some of his younger players to continue earning playing time on special teams this season, and Johnson proved during 2011 that he can be a force in that role.

"The defense is still there," Johnson asid. "I've just got to work on tackling a little more. It's still there."

Most running backs struggle with pass protection during the move. They're focused on getting the ball and creating big plays with it instead of protecting the quarterback on pass plays.

That wasn't a problem for Johnson.

Whether it was his physical nature that came from playing defense or his early understanding of the offense, he picked up pass protection early in the spring.

"That's one of my biggest things," Johnson said. "I want to be a blocker first and ball security, too. It's my instincts and my aggression. Having played defense, striking people comes naturally."

Learning pass protection was an important part of the backup running back battle for Johnson. He's going up against backs like Mack Brown and Matt Jones that have been playing the position for a long time. It's a healthy competition that gives the Gators some depth at running back.

"Everybody has been getting their fair share and the reps," Johnson said. "It has been fun. The coaches are handling it."

The only hiccup in the switch to running back came when Johnson sprained his neck earlier in fall camp. He was taken to the hospital as a precaution but has returned to practice since.

"It wasn't scary," Johnson said. "I have been injured before, but it's nothing I can't get over. Injuries are part of the game. I've been rehabbing and doing treatment. I'll get back out there."

At the top of the running back depth chart is Mike Gillislee. The senior running back is the veteran that everyone at the position looks up to and goes to with questions. Gillislee is an ideal back for the downhill, between the tackles running game that Muschamp wants to feature.

However, it's his leadership that is most important at the position.

"He's a good leader," Johnson said. "I look up to him and try to take anything I can from him and use it to my game. I'm only a sophomore. I'm young and still learning. He helps me a lot."

The Gators now have four running backs that will fit into the scheme. Last season, it was more of a perimeter-based running game because of the speed that Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey brought to the backfield. It's the roster Muschamp inherited, but it isn't what he wants to do with the offense.

He wants powerful running backs that can push the pile and get the first down. Florida had to bring in Trey Burton in a wildcat package for those situations last year. That won't be necessary in 2012.

"It's going to be a lot different," Johnson said. "We're going to run the ball more. We've got a lot of physical backs. Last year, we had a lot of speedy guys. This year will be different because we can bring the physicality to the offense."

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