Damaris Johnson is a dynamic kick returner and receiver for the Golden Hurricane
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Dec 22, 2010
Perhaps deep down, Todd Graham may harbor just a bit of empathy for opponents trying to contain Damaris Johnson.
As Tulsa's defensive coordinator in 2004, Graham agonized as Chad Owens -- Hawaii's relatively diminutive yet dynamic receiver/kick returner -- helped turn a tight game into a Warriors rout with 253 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns, including a pivotal punt return.
Graham returns to Aloha Stadium, site of those not-so-fond memories, for the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl on Friday, this time with the title of the Golden Hurricane's head coach and a player of comparable stature and skills on his side of the field.
"They're real similar," Graham said of Owens and Johnson, now Tulsa's leading playmaker.
"Big-play guys, guys that catch the ball, yards after catch, great quickness and acceleration. ... It's big time to have a guy like that."
Once Johnson signed with Tulsa in 2008, Graham didn't waste much time putting his gifts to work. In less than three full seasons since, Johnson:
» Surpassed the NCAA record for career kickoff-return yardage;
» Moved within shouting distance of the all-purpose yardage mark;
» Topped the nation in all-purpose yards the past two years, earning second-team Associated Press All-America honors this season.
"He's been special in so many ways," Graham said. "He is no question our most valuable player."
This season Johnson, Conference USA's special teams player of the year, averages 27.4 yards on kickoff returns, 12.5 on punt returns and is Tulsa's top receiver and second-leading rusher.
The junior enters Friday's matchup with Hawaii with 7,470 career yards, rising to fourth on the NCAA all-purpose yardage list and 294 yards away from the record.
Listed at 5 feet 8, Johnson didn't exactly have recruiters camping on his doorstep as a standout at Destrehan (La.) High School. But he found an opportunity to highlight his abilities in Tulsa's system.
"I knew coming in they would let me do different things with the ball and give me a chance to come in and play early," Johnson said.
Tulsa's spread offense distributes the ball to a variety of playmakers, but the coaches have devised myriad ways to ensure Johnson gets his share of touches, even if teams opt to keep the ball away from him in the kicking game.
"He lines up at quarterback, at running back, at receiver, returns kicks and punts. He does everything except play defense and he could probably do that," Graham said. "We knew he was special. From the time he's walked onto our practice field he's been spectacular."
Johnson has been held under triple digits in yardage just three times in his career, and has 27 touchdowns (16 receiving, seven rushing, four returns). Among the most critical of his 11 scores this season came on a punt return in Tulsa's landmark win at Notre Dame on Oct. 30.
Trailing the Fighting Irish 27-18 in the third quarter, Johnson returned a punt 59 yards to help close the gap. A fourth-quarter field goal gave Tulsa a 28-27 victory.
"It was a real spark in the game," Johnson said. "Just gave guys more confidence. It was just a play that needed to be made and I'm happy I was that person to make that play."
Even so, Johnson would rather heap the credit on the unit clearing the way.
"Those guys want me to score touchdowns more than I want to score touchdowns," Johnson said. "That helps me a lot that they're going out there excited to block for me. I love that a lot."
Johnson said kick returning is largely a matter of reaction and while height may have contributed to other schools overlooking him in the recruiting process, he views his size as an advantage.
"Since I'm small I can get in and out of places and don't take big hits every time," he said.