The Maryland football team was stuck in a scoreless tie against Big Ten rival Rutgers Oct. 13. Neither team had scored nor had a play longer than 11 yards, but Terps senior running back Ty Johnson changed that in an instant.
Johnson took the handoff, ran to the right between his guard and tackle and cut upfield past the Scarlet Knights. On one 65-yard rush, Johnson gave the Terps the lead and also put himself in the Maryland record books by becoming just the fourth player in school history to post 4,000 career all-purpose yards.
The previous three Terps -- receivers Torrey Smith and Stefon Diggs and running back LaMont Jordan -- all played multiple seasons in the NFL after leaving College Park, Md. Johnson, though, was happier after the game about the 34-7 victory against Rutgers than joining that group.
"I don't really pay attention to it all that much," Johnson said of reaching 4,000 all-purpose yards. "My mom is really the one that pays attention to stuff like that. I just go in ready to play the game. That stuff doesn't mean anything to me -- I mean, it means something. But as of right now, we had a great win as a team."
His mother did indeed welcome him with a huge hug after the game. The Cumberland, Md., native, in his fourth and final year in College Park, ranks third all-time in all-purpose yards, just ahead of Diggs. In addition to posting more than 4,000 all-purpose yards, Johnson, listed at 5-foot-10 and 212 pounds, is also among the top five in program history in rushing yards and number of 100-yard rushing games.
Smith and Diggs are in the midst of successful NFL careers, while Jordan had a nine-year career in the league. Johnson will try to follow their lead, though his draft prospects are unclear.
"Like everyone, I want a chance to prove myself at the next level," Johnson said. "It was awesome to cross the mark and join those guys, but … I want to finish the rest of the season and then I can enjoy it more."
While he's missed time due to a calf injury this season, Johnson has racked up 506 rushing yards during nine games. He also had a 98-yard kickoff return during a 42-21 loss to Michigan Oct. 6, which earned him Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week.
No matter how many awards he earns or milestones he passes, Johnson's attitude has always helped define him.
"He's a humble young man, but to be in the category of the … players mentioned -- in the history of Maryland football only four players with 4,000 yards, and he's one of those guys, [it's] a great honor for him," interim head coach Matt Canada said.
Johnson's attitude comes from his background in rural Maryland. He credits his mom, Tracy, and his high school football coach, Todd Appel, for instilling that modesty in him.
"My mom always wanted me to strive for more," Johnson said. "And Coach Appel was someone that helped me handle the spotlight. Always look forward, they said. You're blessed but have to continue to work."
Johnson was a three-year varsity starter at Fort Hill High School in Cumberland and produced in all three phases of the game. By the time he graduated, Johnson had racked up 4,851 all-purpose yards to go with 65 touchdowns. He also had 17 interceptions playing defense.
Johnson finished his career at Fort Hill with back-to-back 14-0 seasons. He was ranked by 247Sports as the best running back in the state in the 2015 recruiting class. Despite all of his statistics and accolades, Johnson struggled to get recruited, which he admits was "pretty frustrating."
Still, Johnson persisted by sending letters and emails to schools across the country. Eventually, he found a willing program in Maryland under the leadership of then-head coach Randy Edsall. It was an easy decision to stick close to home with the only Big Ten program to offer him a scholarship.
When he joined the Terps, Johnson's elusiveness in the open field was his biggest strength. In youth and high school football, Johnson said he was scolded for "dancing in the backfield" and would have to run extra sprints, so he quickly adjusted to being a one-cut back.
"It's just my ability to break a tackle and get straight upfield," Johnson said. "Not a lot of dancing anymore, just be quick."
While his speed and elusiveness have always been defining traits, Johnson believes his football IQ and maturity have been the parts of his game that have grown the most during his time in College Park.
He now has the ability to read plays, recognize blitzes and ultimately communicate them to the team when he gets back to the sideline. Part of his growth in football knowledge has come from working with multiple offensive coordinators -- Mike Locksley (2015), Walt Bell (2016-2017) and Canada (2018) -- at Maryland due to coaching staff turnover.
"Working with new coaches can be hard but it just adds on top of each other and I can recognize more," Johnson said. "I've improved a lot over the years, I know that."
That increased knowledge has translated into a stronger leadership role for Johnson. The Terps' running backs have split carries all season, but that's never frustrated the senior leader who knows part of his role is to mentor sophomore running backs Javon Leake and Tayon Fleet-Davis and redshirt freshman running back Anthony McFarland.
"They'll be here next year and after that, they're the future," Johnson said "They're a really talented group."
But knowing his fellow running backs are talented doesn't make finishing up his career any easier. Johnson hopes to finish off the season with a winning record, and the ultimate goal would be to qualify, and win, a postseason bowl game.
"I can't say how Maryland or their fans will remember me, but I want to finish with a bowl game win, a winning season," Johnson said. "Be remembered as a team that played hard and reached these heights."
Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox
Issue 249: November 2018
Originally published Nov. 15, 2018