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'Dang, I really just did that.' How Dillon Johnson got healthy, then ran wild
Acupuncture helped Johnson on the path to his 256-yard game at USC.
SEATTLE — As he attempted to recover from knee and hamstring injuries that limited him through Washington’s first two games, Dillon Johnson received a simple question from members of the Huskies’ training staff.
“Do you like needles?”
Well, no, the junior tailback told them, not really.
Their reply: “Well, we’ve got something that might be able to help you.”
It was acupuncture, in part, that led Johnson to run for a quarter-thousand yards at the Coliseum.
“Basically, I had to go to this lady. She is freakin’ tremendous. She got me right,” Johnson said this week. “She put about 20 needles in my hamstrings, my calves, all this type of stuff. And it hurt. But it got me better.”
He said he received the treatment three or four times per week, for four or five weeks — even for his tightening back, at one point — “and here I am now,” selected Tuesday as the Doak Walker national player of the week after rushing for 256 yards and four touchdowns in UW’s 52-42 victory at USC.
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Johnson’s rushing total was fifth-best in UW history, and the third-most rushing yards ever gained in a single game against USC (Oregon’s Kenjon Barner rushed for 321 in 2012, and UCLA’s Joshua Kelley put up 289 in 2018). It moved him to sixth in the Pac-12 in rushing this season (686 yards), and his four scores moved him into a tie for the conference lead with 10 rushing touchdowns. And with three games remaining in the regular season, plus a likely appearance in the Pac-12 championship game followed by some kind of bowl trip, Johnson could get five games in order to gain the 314 yards needed to become UW’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Salvon Ahmed in 2019.
Though the Mississippi State transfer said he never questioned that he would eventually become healthy enough to produce at this level, the Huskies’ first two games did not suggest that Johnson might do to USC what only two rushers ever have.
He missed most of spring practices while recovering from a knee injury sustained last season in Starkville. An offseason cleanup surgery meant coaches brought him along slowly during preseason camp. He looked rusty in the opener against Boise State, carrying seven times for 12 yards.
“Dillon just knew he wasn’t himself,” offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb said. “He was super frustrated. He wasn’t able to make the plays we knew he had the ability to make.”
Johnson said he could have played the following week against Tulsa, but maybe only at 50 percent. Sitting him for that game, Grubb said, “was kind of the catalyst to start getting him over that next hump, and getting him feeling better.”
He’s looked it. Eight carries produced 71 yards at Michigan State, and Johnson established a career high with 91 yards on 16 carries (and two touchdowns) at Arizona. He hit the 100-yard mark for the first time against Oregon. UW’s running game nosedived against Arizona State and operated in fits and starts at Stanford, though Johnson still scratched out 84 yards and a touchdown. He found creases and pushed piles, muscling his way to hidden yardage while dragging tacklers (though a stunningly high 170 of his yards against USC came before contact, per Pro Football Focus). Without fifth-year junior Cam Davis, lost for the season to a camp injury, Johnson’s emergence became paramount.
After the ASU game, Grubb said, the coaching staff “really put a challenge out there to the o-line that they need to practice more physical, and they need to practice harder, and they certainly have. I think it’s paid dividends. I think they’re playing harder, practicing harder, and I think it’s showing up on Saturdays.”
Said Johnson: “Especially the beginning of the game (Saturday), we wanted to set the tone that we were the most physical team.”
In three seasons playing for the late Mike Leach in the Air Raid at Mississippi State, Johnson never carried more than 16 times in a game (though he did catch 149 passes). He’s met or exceeded that total in four of his eight games so far this season, including his career-high 26 attempts at USC. (Even during Saturday’s game, trainers inquired about a “humongous knot” on one of Johnson’s arms, though he said all is well.)
How did he feel afterward?
“Absolutely terrible,” he said, laughing. “But it’s a part of it. It’s actually crazy, because I’ve never had over 20 carries in my career — I’m talking high school, middle school, junior high, whatever you can think of.”
The key, he said, is “rehab, rehab, rehab. Still conditioning. Extra sprints. Extra running.” Coaches continue to closely monitor his practice reps, and Johnson credits the training staff for devising a treatment plan to keep him fresh. Grubb thinks Johnson is taking care of his body in a way that not only allows him to stay on the field, but is actually making him stronger as the season progresses, something he emphasized during a recent offensive meeting.
Johnson has carried 113 times in eight games this season, already a career high. Tybo Rogers is second on the team with 32 rushing attempts. Last year, Wayne Taulapapa led UW with 140 carries in 13 games.
Johnson did point to one exception to his aforementioned workload, during his days at St. Joseph Catholic in Greenville, Miss., where he starred alongside current Florida State running back Trey Benson. In a 60-40 victory over North Delta his senior year, Johnson carried 21 times for 240 yards and four touchdowns; Benson went for 298 and four scores. A three-star recruit, Johnson committed to play for coach Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State, but the school fired him and hired Leach ahead of Johnson’s freshman year.
He transferred after three seasons, he said, to expand his game and push himself outside the comfort zone of his home state. Getting him to Seattle required extra effort at the end, at least partially because of Grubb’s discussions with Alabama coach Nick Saban about the Tide’s OC job. “I think that hurt a little bit at the time,” Grubb said. “Once we got that all cleared up, it was really good.” After Grubb made the decision to stay at Washington, he made an additional trip to Greenville to visit with Johnson and his family, and assure them of the vision UW had already detailed.
“Coach Grubb is a mastermind. I just wanted to make sure we were locked in,” Johnson said. “We talked about it. We talked about the future. And he knows what we have. Like I told everybody at the beginning, we’ve got a special group of guys, and he believes in each and every one of us. We’re here now. We’re trying to do something special. We’re doing something special right now — we’ve just got to try to continue it.”
Johnson still can improve his top-end speed and “sustainability throughout a game,” Grubb said, though he was impressed with the tailback’s assertiveness on Saturday, “kind of almost demanding to be in there.”
“As a football player, I think he’s still got a lot to prove and be even better,” Grubb said. “I mean that in a really good way. I think his top end is really, really high.”
Several of Johnson’s family members bore witness in Los Angeles, though his 1-year-old son, Dillon Jr., was sound asleep in Greenville. “But he’s gonna know pretty soon, ‘daddy did good things for you,’” Johnson said.
That’s assuming he can convince himself it actually happened. During his postgame interview with teammate Michael Penix Jr. and ESPN’s Holly Rowe, Johnson still was trying to process what he described as a “shocking performance.”
Standing on the Coliseum grass, a television camera broadcasting his words to a national audience, Johnson thought: “Dang, I really just did that. It was just incredible.”
— Christian Caple, On Montlake