Cavalier Camp: Will M.J. be a Thriller?

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Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a thrill seeker. He’s gone bungee jumping several times, including last spring break in Miami. “It’s a rush,” he said. “I want to skydive next. That would be a total rush.”

Which is why last football season was so difficult for Virginia’s sophomore tailback. There were no thrills. No rushes, literally or figuratively, as he took his redshirt year. All he could do was watch and wait.

Now, however, UVa’s fastest player is back and ready to provide some thrills for Cavalier fans. Bigger, stronger and more skilled – “a more complete back,” he says – Johnson could be a sparkplug for a diverse but slightly speed-challenged Virginia offense.

“He could be our big-play guy,” said quarterback Marques Hagans. “If we get him out in the open field, watch out. It’s hard to catch him.”

Of course, speed has never been a problem for Johnson, who rushed for over 4,000 yards in high school and was among the nation’s top tailback recruits. Strength, elusiveness, hands and blocking ability were all areas that needed improvement when he arrived at UVa.

So after seeing limited action as a true freshman in 2002, Johnson spent last year working on his deficiencies. Initially, he wasn’t crazy about the idea of redshirting when UVa coach Al Groh broached the subject. But with a logjam at tailback and the prospect of greater playing time in 2005 and 2006, he acquiesced.

“I was skeptical, but it was the right thing to do,” he said. “I had a chance to become a better player while I was redshirting and I think it’s going to pay off in the future.”

During his redshirt year, the 5-9 Johnson gained about 15 pounds and now weighs in at a solid 200. He practiced as a scout-team receiver in order to improve his pass-catching ability. He worked on blocking and picking up blitzes. He practiced making moves on defenders rather than just trying to race by them.

Groh says Johnson has made considerable progress in all of those areas. To earn playing time, he had to do more than take a handoff and