Blocking on a kick return is the definition of unsung effort.
Yet here is Roshaun Johnson, who scored three touchdowns in the University of Idaho’s 68-0 season-opening win against Simon Fraser, hustling to get out in front of Vandals’ second-team all-Big Sky Conference kick returner Nick Romano as Idaho prepares for its second game against Big Ten opponent Indiana.
It’s a midweek practice, but Johnson leans into the drill like it’s live, sets up to block not one but two oncoming defenders in succession, and as Romano grabs onto his belt, Johnson leads him into clear sailing along the sideline.
“This week, Nick’s going to get a lot of returns,” Johnson says after practice. “That’s my guy. I want to get out in front and make sure he’s not getting hit.” At a stout 6-0, 235 pounds, Johnson, a redshirt junior, is the alpha among Idaho’s running backs early on this season. Yet his coaches are in love with the fact he embraces everything about the position he plays, not just the glory.
“I am so proud of how much he has matured as a young man,” Idaho coach Paul Petrino said after the Simon Fraser game. “He’s selfless … he cares about his team.”
Vandals’ running backs coach Pryce Tracy has worked with Johnson for two years. Tracy said Johnson is notable for “his work ethic, his focus and his football knowledge. He is fully bought-in. He has grown since I’ve been here. … He is proud of the product he puts on the field.”
Johnson sees himself as the latest link in a chain of solid Vandals running backs. He grew up in Minnesota’s Twin Cities and in nearby Wisconsin, but went to high school in the Phoenix suburb of Goodyear. After a prep career in which he was a three-year team captain who rushed for 3,038 career yards and caught passes for 1,641 more, Johnson said he had a number of collegiate offers. Idaho was late to the game.
“I came up here for a visit. Idaho was the last school to offer me,” he says. However, he was taken by Moscow, the university and “the family vibe around the team.”
As a freshman, he was the new guy but a willing apprentice to incumbent stars like Aaron Duckworth, a former Sun Belt Conference rushing leader from Idaho’s years as a Football Bowl Subdivision team, and Isaiah Saunders, who was an All-Big Sky third-team performer who finished his career as Idaho’s 10th all-time leading rusher.
“They taught me a lot,” Johnson says. “I didn’t have a lot of knowledge under my belt. They helped me grow as a player and as an individual, as well – lay off the partying, get on the books and in the film room.”
Johnson had a couple of impressive spring football campaigns in his first two years with the Vandals but always seemed to fade into the background in the fall when the real games began. This was part of learning behind Duckworth and Saunders. “They were older guys. They were here. They knew their roles, and they knew the offense better,” he says.
But Johnson has absorbed the lessons he learned, and now it is his turn. A management and human resources management major who hopes to own his own business eventually, Johnson i now wants to be able to do for younger teammates what Duckworth and Saunders did for him.
“I try to be here for them” he says. This includes stepping forward as a team spokesman following games. Last Saturday, Johnson commented approvingly on freshman Elisha Cummings, who rushed for 56 yards and a touchdown against Simon Fraser, bowling over a tackler to get that 12-yard score. Cummings is a speedy, compact 170 pounds “He’s small, but he produced a lot of power,” said Johnson, sounding like an approving older brother.
Even before he was a backfield mainstay, Johnson had his moments. He rushed for 69 yards in 15 carries and a touchdown against Wyoming in 2019 and 31 yards on five carries, a 6.2-yard average, against Florida in 2018. Now he’s ready for Indiana on Saturday in Bloomington.
“Those big games we look forward to tremendously,” he said. “It’s exciting. The whole team loves the energy it brings to practice getting ready for those games.”
He has put that on display in the week of practice leading up to the Hoosiers, running and cutting decisively, taking check down passes in the backfield to the sidelines and all the way to the end zone, and giving Romano a sturdy escort on kick returns.
“All I want is for this team to succeed,” he says. “I’ll do anything in my power to do it.”
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