CEDAR FALLS – Northern Iowa was in the midst of a swap at running back at Camp Randall. Fifth-year senior Carlos Anderson trotted off the field, but his work on it wasn’t done. As David Johnson, a sophomore, came on, the elder statesman gave him some valuable knowledge.
“Watch out for (linebacker Chris) Borland, with the two plays that worked he told me to watch out for, to see if he runs again or which way they’re running, ” Johnson said.
The tandem will be making the same type of reads this weekend at Kinnick Stadium as the Panthers play their second Big Ten opponent of the season in the Hawkeyes.
Through weeks of summer practice, fall ball and two regular season games, Anderson and Johnson have continued a chemistry that began last season with Anderson on the sideline.
“(The relationship) has grown tremendously over the summer and over the course of last year,” Anderson said. “I just tried to show him the way, show him what to look for, what not to look for, from every as to on the field and off the field.”
A nagging ankle injury limited Anderson to eight starts last year. When he did play he totaled just 410, compared to his junior campaign where he came up 26 yards shy of 1,000.
With Anderson hampered by his ankle, the reigns were given to Johnson, who wasn’t exactly expecting them.
“I was a little nervous with him being hurt,” Johnson said. “I was a little nervous coming out and wasn’t really ready. But it helped me in becoming a man and knowing how to play college football.”
Johnson was alone in the backfield, but when he returned to the sideline Anderson was there, acting as a second running backs coach. At times his information was even more valuable than any coach’s.
“With him, knowing the defense, since he played the year before, he would know how the defense would run,” Johnson said. “That was my first year playing, so he definitely helped me.”
Under Anderson’s tutelage, Johnson finished with 1,244 all-purpose yards as a red-shirt freshman. He finished fourth for the Rice Award (FCS top freshmen) and was the runner-up for Missouri Valley Conference’s Freshman of the Year.
The success led to a log jam at running back though. There was only one ball to carry and the two spent spring and summer trying to wrestle the starting spot from the other. Then the coaching staff combined the best of both worlds, introducing the “20 Package.”
“It’s amazing how they’ve come together and realized what’s best for the team is what’s best for the team,” Quarterback Sawyer Kollmorgen said. “They competed all spring ball, all summer and now here in fall camp for the starting spot. And then they just realized, ‘Hey, we’re both going to play. We’re both going to get the same amount of balls. Whatever, we’re just going to go out there and play.’”
With both in the backfield at the same time, it gives the Panthers a difficult dynamic to defend. Anderson, at 5-8, 172, brings shiftiness and speed. And not just any speed. He also runs track for UNI and was the 2012 MVC champion in the 60 yard dash with at time of 6.82 seconds.
Johnson on the other hand measures in at 6-foot-3, 214 and is a bruiser.
“To tackle one and then to tackle the other, I think that’s a good combination because you try to get a little a little beat on David to try to bring him down and then the other guy is going to try to make a jump cut on you right at the end,” UNI head coach Mark Farley said. “So I think the burst of Carlos and the size of David is a nice compliment as long as you can run the ball.”
So far that’s something the Panthers have not done, at least to the liking of their head coach. Through two games Northern Iowa has rushed for 218 yards. Their Thunder and Lightning combo has accounted for just 115 of that.
Things might open up Saturday. The Hawkeyes boast the 54th best run defense in the country, allowing 124 yards per game. Still not too shabby, but much better than Wisconsin’s 14th ranked run stoppers that held the duo to 38 yards on the ground.
No matter what numbers say, Johnson is ready to tell a different story.
“I definitely feel like we have the talent, the athletes the speed to go against at D-I school like Iowa,” Johnson said. “I feel that we can go four quarters with them and definitely give them a run for their money.”