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W. Md.'s Johnson knows his yards got boost from Frees


There aren't any revisionists on the Western Maryland football team.

Junior tailback Robbie Johnson has 745 yards and nine touchdowns on 135 carries in four games, a pace that would shatter the Green Terrors' single-season record for rushing yardage.

That mark of 1,594 yards set by Eric Frees in 1990 is in jeopardy, but Johnson and everyone else here will tell you that what happens this fall won't diminish Frees' accomplishments.

"Give Eric this offensive line, and he gains 2,000 yards easy," Johnson said. "I felt bad for Eric last year. We were starting three freshmen on the offensive line, and they had to learn some pretty sophisticated schemes. They know them now, and they're playing great."

The maturation of that line not only has benefited Johnson, it has pushed the Green Terrors to a perfect 4-0 start this season.

Besides, it's hard to imagine Frees gaining any more yards than he did in four seasons. He finished his career last November as the leading all-purpose rusher in the history of Division III football. His 5,281 career rushing yards are second-best in Division III.

Western Maryland will try to continue its best start in 24 years Saturday (1:30 p.m.) at Randolph-Macon, and Johnson said the Green Terrors owe a debt to his predecessor.

"Eric taught me a lot of things that have carried over to this year," Johnson said. "Subtle things, like how to hit a hole in a way that avoids injury, how to cut. I'm faster than he is, but Eric could cut on a dime."

Johnson, who has 10.5 speed for 100 meters, is also quick to praise that offensive line, where seniors Paul Pichierri and Todd Wargo are three-year starters on the right side. The other three spots are manned by sophomores, and center Bill Bower, guard Rob Nightingale and tackle Ron Kudlacik are more comfortable in their second year.

When Frees was operating with a learning line last year, Johnson could have been allowed a little self-pity.

A home-grown product who graduated from North Carroll High, Johnson was Western Maryland's second-leading rusher behind Frees in 1989 and '90. He withdrew in the spring of 1991, when his academic performance was hindered by what Johnson called "personal problems."

He spent two semesters at Carroll Community College, a satellite of Catonsville Community College. Running for Catonsville, he qualified for the national junior college indoor track and field championships in the 55 meters last fall, but Johnson was eager to re-enroll at Western Maryland and get back in football pads.

"I didn't know who was coming into camp this year, and I came in thinking I've got to work my butt off to get a job," Johnson said.

In the long run, Johnson's sitting out a year has probably benefited Western Maryland football. When he backed up Frees, there weren't enough carries in a 60-minute game to satisfy everyone, but Johnson said that didn't create any friction. Coach Dale Sprague saw it similarly and was always impressed by Johnson's willingness to play a supporting role.

"Robbie and Eric, they're so much alike, and I'm not just talking about playing football," Sprague said. "They're not egotistical kids."

Johnson had reason to be cautious after a mishap-filled 1988 at North Carroll. His junior season of track and field was stopped by a fractured pelvis, and his senior season of football ended in the sixth game with a severe ankle injury.

He was healthy the next spring, finishing third in the 100 and 200 sprints at the state Class 3A track and field championships, but most recruiters don't chase 155-pounders from losing programs, even if they gained more than 1,400 yards as a junior and nearly 1,000 in six games as a senior.

Sprague saw a back who would prosper in the Green Terrors' run-oriented system. Johnson, who's grown to 5 feet 7 and 170 pounds, gained 391 yards as a freshman and 580 as a sophomore, a 6-3-1 season that is the only time since rec ball he's been on a winner until now.

This season's totals give Johnson 1,716 career yards and 21 touchdowns. Later this month, he should become the 11th collegian in state history to gain 2,000 yards.

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