Johnson filling holes

Keith Farner

On most football teams, the new guys aren’t usually the center of attention.

Especially after only being at practice for three days, you usually won’t find them telling stories around the veterans of the team.

But that’s where senior tailback Jeremi Johnson found himself Thursday morning as Western began its fourth day of two-a-day workouts.

“Everybody told me they’re happy to have me here and made me welcome,” Johnson said. “Especially the players, and even the running backs.”

Some of his mates may have been wondering what it was like to take hand-offs from All-American and NFL draftee Antwan Randal El. Johnson would know.

After transferring from Indiana following a coaching change, Johnson finds himself in a crowded Western backfield for his final season of eligibility. He won’t have to sit out a year because NCAA rules allow players who transfer from Division I-A to Division I-AA to play immediately.

“I thought this would be a better fit this year for me,” Johnson said. “I didn’t feel (Indiana) was the best place for me at this time in my life.”

As a Hoosier last season, Johnson rushed for 546 yards while hauling in 16 passes for 213 yards and scored eight touchdowns. With a Western backfield full of question marks before his arrival, those numbers make him a welcome addition.

But what made Western a better fit for Johnson was his position coach, T.J. Weist, who also came from Indiana.

“He was the biggest part, the main reason,” Johnson said. “When I found out he was coming over here . I tried my best to try to get in over here.”

Weist left Indiana after head coach Cam Cameron was fired and replaced by Gerry DiNardo, who brought in an entire new staff. Weist said DiNardo and Johnson didn’t see eye-to-eye.

“It was more of a disagreement with Jeremi and Coach DiNardo,” Weist said. “Coach DiNardo wanted to make an example out of a player.”

Johnson joins backfield senior Jon Frazier, junior Chris Miller, junior Ronnie Lilly and sophomore Maurice Bradley, who has impressed Harbaugh midway through preseason workouts, and freshmen Reggie Dent, Lerron Moore and DeWayne Penn.

“There are a couple of them that I like a lot,” Johnson said. “I’m like, man, Frazier, that boy, he reminds me of Tiki Barber from the New York Giants how he runs. He’s small but he’s not scared to hit up in there. There aren’t too many running backs that small that would do that.”

The group will try to replace departed seniors DeWayne Gallishaw and Keith Brooks, who rushed for 856 and 809 yards last season, respectively. The two combined for 12 touchdowns.

Johnson was used as a fullback at Indiana, but as a Topper, he’ll be a tailback. Harbaugh said he’s looking forward to seeing how the change works out. Johnson’s 5-foot-11 frame is packed with 270 pounds, a build that allows Johnson to treat defenders more like bowling pins than tackling dummies.

“He’s a load. All-Big Ten player. Anybody that caliber of player is definitely going to be able to step in,” quarterback Jason Michael said. “But he’s quick for his size, he’s got some nice feet.”

For obvious reasons, Johnson has drawn comparisons to Jerome Bettis – a.k.a. The Bus – of the Pittsburgh Steelers. When asked about those comparisons, co-offensive coordinator Willie Taggart smiled.

“We’ve got our own Bus,” Taggart said proudly. “Big Red will get on the Bus.”

But Harbaugh won’t let himself get too excited, yet.

“There’s a lot to be seen. First of all, he’s got to stay healthy. He’s got to get into better shape, and he’s got to learn our offense,” Harbaugh said. “But the positives are that he’s a very, very gifted athlete, he’s a very, very pleasant young man.”

Despite the quantity of backs, Harbaugh and Weist are still looking for someone to distinguish himself from the group.

“I’ll have more answers for you after Saturday,” said Weist, referring to the first scrimmage of the preseason over the weekend. “There’s only one way to find out, and that’s to go live.”

But the picture was no clearer after Saturday’s intrasquad game. Frazier led all backs with 59 yards on 11 carries. Dent added 46 on nine, including an impressive 25-yard score. And Johnson, who was hampered by a minor injury, got just 12 yards on five carries.

But the tight-knit group Johnson has been accepted into – after less than a week of practice – has assured him that he made the right decision.

“They have great chemistry over here, they play well together. There’s really no standouts. They don’t let themselves know that they’re standouts,” he said. “They play as a team like everybody is equal, and I like that a lot.”

SUBHED: SCRIMMAGE ENDS TWO-A-DAY WORKOUTS

After a week of two practices a day, the Toppers were given a chance to go at each other at game speed.

After the spring Red-White game where turnovers were plenty, Harbaugh was pleased Western cut down its mistakes Saturday.

“Both units were definitely more consistent than what we saw in the spring,” Harbaugh said. “Jason (Michael) and Antone (Towns) did a good job running the team. Today was indicative of how they are getting better with more reps in camp this month.”

Watching the Toppers offense score 30 points Saturday, he reiterated his No. 1 quarterback will be Michael – who didn’t disappoint.

The senior went 6-for-13 for 86 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

One of Michael’s favorite targets this year could be senior wide receiver Jerome Reaves. Reaves – who led the team with 18 receptions for 426 yards and four touchdowns in 2000 – had four catches for 92 yards including two scores.

“We need to find a go-to guy in the passing game,” Harbaugh said. “Someone who can reduce the risk of an interception because he is willing and able to go up and get the ball. I think Jerome can develop into that kind of guy.”

BEGINITAL Keith Farner can be reached at [email protected]