Midwest backs pack plenty of punch

When Rivals100 releases its national top 100 in mid-June don’t be surprised if you see two blue-chip running backs from the Midwest on the list. And don’t be surprised if either is mentioned when talking about who the best back in the nation is because they’re both that good.
Recruiting fans in the Midwest are already well aware of how talented Williamsport, Pa., standout Darrell Blackman and Bolingbrook, Ill., A.J. Johnson already are. But it’s time to introduce them to the rest of the nation now.

Article Continues Below
Blackman, who is 6-foot and 190 pounds, is silky smooth with the ball in his hands. He’s already racked up more than 4,284 yards in his high school career and should become the all-time leading rusher in Williamsport history early in his senior season.
In Pennsylvania, the chant from opposing coaches is to stop No. 2. But doing that is often easier said than done.
Abington Heights, Pa., coach Greg Justave is one of Blackman’s converts – especially after he took the second play from scrimmage against his squad last season for an 80-yard touchdown jaunt.
“Athletically, he is second to none,” Justave said. “The key to stopping him is to keep him from making big plays and turning what should be short runs into long ones. That doesn’t happen often.”
Some folks are quietly saying that Blackman might be even better than much ballyhooed PA running back Kevin Jones, who was the nation’s top player two years ago and made a nice contribution this past season at Virginia Tech.
“You see a lot of Kevin in Darrell and a lot of Darrell in Kevin,” one college coach said.
“Both have what it takes to be playing on Sundays. I don’t know if you would be necessarily wrong by saying one is better than the other. Kevin had a great senior season and Darrell has a chance to put himself up there with some of the best ever in the state this fall. It’s just a joy to watch him carry the ball.”
Blackman is already the center of attention from recruiters. He has and impressive list of offers from teams like Boston College, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan State, Pittsburgh and West Virginia. He’s also interested in Michigan and Penn State.
Blackman isn’t the only running back in PA that might end up on the Rivals100 team. Another PA running back is making a move up the recruiting charts and getting attention from an impressive list of suitors is Washington, Pa., speedster Travis Thomas.
But in the state of Illinois, Johnson doesn’t have any competition when it comes to being an elite running back prospect and he believes that he belongs up there with the best of the best in the entire nation.
“When I run, I just think that people can’t tackle me,” Johnson, who is 6-foot and 225 pounds, said. “When I get the ball it’s just me out there focused on the end zone. People just bounce off me. Right now, I’m at 225 and my squat and bench are high. I just use all of that to get into the end zone.”
And get there he does a lot.
Johnson was sidelined for much of his junior season with two stress fractures in his shins. That limited his ball-carrying ability and his stats to only around 600 yards as a junior. But Johnson wanted to get on the field so bad, he played quite a bit at defensive end just to get on the field.
“I was hurting,” Johnson said.
“It was hard to watch things on the sidelines, so I had to get back out there and do something. I was a step slow because of the injury and I couldn’t play linebacker. So coach put me at defensive end, but I was still in pain.”
Johnson hopes to bring the pain to opponents this upcoming season. He’s now solely focused on getting back out there and proving to everybody that he is one of the nation’s best running backs.
“I’ve had to work twice as hard,” he said. “I have to get two years into one. My main goal is to just play hard and work with my team to get all the way to state.”
And it’s something that he can focus quite a bit on without distractions from recruiters.
Johnson committed early to Illinois and despite the heavy calls from programs all over the nation and the Midwest, he said he plans on sticking with that pledge.
“I’m solid on UI,” he said. “I’m going to UI for sure.
“It’s kind of close to home, and the program is coming up and just about ready to explode. Other schools have good programs, but none like Illinois.”
So what has Johnson been telling the coaches from Michigan, Michigan State, Iowa, Wisconsin and Ohio State and others that have been calling in May?
“I’m not rude to them,” he said. “I can’t really tell them no don’t call me anymore. But when they ask about where I want to go to school I tell them UI. Some of them just wish me luck and others say they’re going to keep recruiting me. I’m solid on Illinois, though.”
Just like both Blackman and Johnson are solid early picks for top running backs in the Midwest.