Jeremiah Johnson understood and accepted the plan. That doesn’t mean he liked it.
The B.C. Lions running back split time with Anthony Allen last season as the club aimed to keep both players as fresh and healthy as possible at a position that is among the most violent on the football field.
Johnson would play a few games, watch the next couple weeks while Allen got his chance, and then return to the huddle.
“It gets you off your groove,” Johnson said of the stop/start nature of the rotation. “You just abide by what’s going on.”
But when the Lions reconvened at training camp, Johnson was the undisputed feature back after signing a two-year contract extension, while Allen had moved on.
Johnson, who turned 30 in February, made it clear to B.C. head coach and general manager Wally Buono during discussions for his new deal that suiting up the entire season was crucial.
“That’s what it’s all about for me,” said Johnson. “I told Wally when we were up in here negotiating, ‘I want to play the whole 18 (games).”’
Including a bye week, he sat out more than a month last summer followed by a couple of two-week stretches of inaction before taking over full-time late in the season.
“It starts in practice,” Johnson said of what he did to stay ready. “That’s how I got over the hump with time off and time on, just working hard in practice.”
Johnson ended up rushing for 809 yards and seven touchdowns on 138 carries in 11 games for the Lions, who finished with a 12-6 record and a post-season victory against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers before bowing out to the Calgary Stampeders in the West Division final.
Allen also had a good year in his seven starts, while returner Chris Rainey saw time in the backfield to give opponents a different look as B.C. led the CFL in rushing with 2,082 yards over 18 games, good for a 115.7-yard per game average.
Prior to coming north of the border, Johnson bounced around NFL before settling in with the Denver Broncos for three seasons on the active and practice rosters.
A star at the University of Oregon from 2005 to 2008, Johnson then split time between the Toronto Argonauts and Ottawa Redblacks in 2014.
The Los Angeles native remained in the nation’s capital the following year, amassing 448 yards and nine TDs on 97 carries in just 10 games before a foot injury sidelined him for the rest of the season.
Johnson came to Lions’ camp last spring eager to finally be “the guy.” That didn’t happen right away, but it looks like this will be his year.
“I see him taking more of the load,” said Buono. “You’ve got to look at the beginning, the middle, the end (of the schedule), and then the playoffs. You’ve got to be able to have enough depth that if a player (is) beat up and nicked, you’ve got to give them rest.”
During one recent morning camp session in Kamloops, the running backs were going through some drills when a coach threw a pass that Johnson leapt for and effortlessly hauled in with one hand.
Later on during the full team portion of the practice, Johnson, who rushed for a career-high 159 yards and three touchdowns in a win over the Montreal Alouettes last September, took a handoff and burst through the defence on his first carry for a big gain.
Not every player is willing to publicly state their personal statistical goals for a season, but Johnson is happy to share his _ he wants 1,000 yards on the ground by B.C.’s 11th game and then go from there.
“You’re always trying to get better from last year,” he said. “We just want to build, build, build. You want to build these blocks and make a big old house that’s unstoppable.”
Coupled with quarterback Jonathon Jennings and an elite receiving corps, Johnson and the Lions’ offence could be on the cusp of putting up some big numbers.
“With a great running game and five capable receivers out there that can catch the ball at any time and take it to the crib, that’s a lot of thinking that a defensive player has to do,” said Johnson. “As a defensive player you’re not really pre-conditioned to think like that.
“We have the opportunity to blow this thing out of the water.”