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April 6, 2007

Johnson proving tough to stop

James Johnson calls it the "coat" play. Now we know why. Because after three different Kansas State defenders got a heavy dose of Johnson on his 60-yard touchdown run during the Wildcats' spring practice late Thursday night in the indoor complex, each probably needed a little something to coat the nausea that crept inside following their abuse.

"As you could see," cornerback Byron Garvin said, "he's a tough guy to bring down."

Johnson ran for three touchdowns and caught a pass for a score against a defense that liberally rotated during 11-on-11 scrimmage situations. He ran it up the gut. He took it outside. He juked and bobbed and sprinted and exploded. He looked every bit like the All-Big 12 candidate he could become by November.

Alas, spring practice. The double-edged sword. Is the 5-foot-11, 200-pound Johnson, who K-State coach Ron Prince insists is bigger, stronger, faster and better, really that good? Or was the defense that stumbled and fell around Johnson that bad?

"James is faster than he was a year ago, he's much more confident for sure," Prince said shortly before midnight. "(Strength coach) Mike Kent is the best thing that's ever happened to James Johnson. He's been able to put on some strength, which has been speed oriented. That doesn't always happen. Some guys get bigger and they get slower. That isn't the case with James. He's decisive and is really confident with what we ask him to do and what we do plays to his strengths.

"As we saw many times in the season, he can play as fast as any of them. That's what we'd like him to do."

Entering his senior year and his second at K-State, Johnson has one big, vocal supporter in offensive coordinator James Franklin.

On one play, Johnson swept right and past safety Andrew Erker for 14 yards.

"James, you're making that play look good!" Franklin shouted, running about 20 yards to tap Johnson on the helmet as he trotted to the line of scrimmage.

On down-and-distance at the 3, Johnson took a handoff from Josh Freeman, wrapped two arms around the ball and bounded up the middle untouched for a score.

Franklin looked at cornerback Justin McKinney, smiling wryly after the senior was blown off the play and never had a chance to make the stop.

"McKinneyyyy!" Franklin cooed. "McKinneyyyy!"

McKinney smiled and shook his head at the trash talk.

Another time in the same session, Freeman dropped back, looked left, then turned right and flipped a pass to Johnson near the 4. Derek Meyer flattened McKinney, springing Johnson inside for paydirt.

The hit of the night belonged to LB Ross Diehl, who leveled OG Logan Robinson. Although the hit didn't keep RB James Johnson from gaining 8 yards on the play, it drew cheers from teammates. LB Justin Roland was a menace in racing into the backfield several times (he would have sacked QB Josh Freeman at least twice), including once when he leveled RB Terry Petrie on a blitz. LB Marcus Perry intercepted a [db]Carson Coffman pass after WR/RB Jeremy James bobbled the ball and returned it 15 yards. TE Brett Alstatt caught no fewer than three balls in scrimmage situations, including one across the middle between S Andrew Erker and S Chris Carney for 20 yards, which he turned into a 60-yard TD. S Courtney Herndon made a nice catch-up PBU in using his right arm to knock away a sure-reception by TE Rashaad Norwood at the last instant some 20 yards downfield. WR Daniel Gonzalez made several impressive catches and no fewer than six during scrimmage situations, including a 60-yard TD reception over Erker on a perfectly laid ball by Freeman. Gonzalez also caught a 30-yard TD strike with only his right hand and in front of CB Joshua Moore and a 15-yard pass a few plays later in front of CB Ray Cheatham on an out pattern near the sideline. Cheatham gave up a 5-yard TD when James caught a pass near the middle and scooted into the end zone. LB John Houlik was used as a blocking back during running back drills. Houlik later intercepted a Coffman pass and returned it 7 yards for a TD. LB Jack Reed saw time at the outside spot during a couple times as the second-team unit rotated personnel. Reed was listed at TE last season. Petrie and RB John McCardle each appeared slightly banged up toward the end of practice and did not participate in the final couple 11-on-11s. RB Leon Patton, LB Antwon Moore, LB Steve Mathias, DT Vlad Faustin, DT Steven Cline, and OT Nick Stringer dressed in uniform but did not participate. A. Moore indicated he would be ready for summer workouts. S Marcus Watts, OG Caleb Handy and OT Alesana Alesana did not attend practice. Former players Quintin Echols, Zach Diles and Maurice Mack attended practice.

Then there was the "coat" play. It was different. It was the kind of display that makes SportsCenter when it comes against a top 10 team.

"I hooked outside, used my speed and took it all the way," Johnson said.

Johnson angled to the right, shot past safety Kevin Hollis in the backfield. Hollis' attempt to grab him with an extended arm wasn't going to be good enough. Garvin took a bad angle about 15 yards downfield. Johnson blew by him along the sideline. Then he stiff-armed and fended off safety Gary Chandler the final 10 yards, as teammates cheered him on as he finished a 60-yard dash to the end zone.

"Two words for you fast and tough," Freeman said. "He's extremely explosive when he gets the ball in his hands."

Johnson saw the ball more than he had in any spring practice. That's because sophomore Leon Patton wasn't in pads after getting dinged up earlier in the week. Patton should be OK. Johnson was more than fine in getting a majority of the reps.

"I caught my second wind at the end," he said.

Prince earlier in the week said "I wouldn't see us changing much from what we did a year ago" in handling Johnson and Patton.

The 5-foot-7, 184-pound Patton led his team across the board with school freshman-record 609 yards on 108 carries and six touchdowns. Johnson gained 403 yards on 98 carries with two touchdowns.

"Both of those guys are well equipped," Freeman said. "Having both of those guys is always great, but if one seems to emerge over the other then they'll be able to be the every-down back."

Prince might still be content featuring an equal-opportunity backfield in the fall. Rightfully so. On Thursday night, a bigger, stronger, faster and better Johnson showed he can carry a load.

Attention getters

A few K-State assistants took turns being the loudest Thursday night.

It started during stretching exercises when secondary coach Greg Burns, in an attempt to issue a challenge, walked by wide receiver Cedric Wilson and said, "I'll be (darned) if this guy is going to catch you," while he looked in the direction of sophomore cornerback Joshua Moore.

During drills with his tight ends, Frank Leonard turned his purple ball cap backward and yelled, "Be the best! Be the best! Be the best! Be the best!" as the position group tight-roped between four orange cones.

Then during 7-on-7s, Freeman found Jordy Nelson across the middle. Garvin slipped while he attempted to make a play on the ball.

"You don't catch it," defensive coordinator Tim Tibesar ordered, "nobody catches it!"

Prince has little to say about Huggins' departure

Prince and Bob Huggins conversed or shared a chuckle or two either prior to or after K-State basketball games this past season. Prince and his recruits also were treated to standing ovations and chants by sold-out crowds when they appeared at Bramlage Coliseum.

Prince became the first K-State coach to lead his team to a bowl game in his first season. Huggins finished the season 23-12 for the basketball program's most wins since 1987-88.

But Prince remained relatively quiet when asked to comment on Huggins' departure after one season.

"I'm not qualified to say anything about that," Prince said. "I like the basketball program here and like everything that's happening here. I want us to be good in all sports. A rising tide raises all boats. I don't feel qualified to react either way. We're just trying to make sure that we can do our part."

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