COLLEGE PARK — As Ty Johnson plucked the food off the stove and filled each plate with a piece of chicken parmigiana and a mound of spaghetti, the smell of garlic filled the apartment of the rising junior Maryland running back.
Dinner was served.
The tradition of Johnson feeding his fellow running backs — and one of his roommates, graduate placekicker Adam Greene — during spring practice continued Wednesday. Rising sophomores Lorenzo Harrison III and Jake Funk stopped playing their NBA video game and Greene, who graduated in December, put aside homework from a finance class.
"They're also serving chicken parm for dinner at Gossett," Greene said, referring to the main course the football team was fed after meetings that evening at the Gossett Team House.
Based on the reaction of his teammates as they tasted the meal, Johnson was a step ahead of the competition, much as he was during his breakout sophomore season last fall.
Though spring practice ends Saturday for the Terps with the annual Red-White game at Maryland Stadium, the preparation for Johnson for the 2017 season will move to other places — specifically the weight room, the practice field for summer workouts and, to a certain extent, the classroom.
But for Johnson, a former three-star prospect who came to Maryland at age 17 with little fanfare from Cumberland and wound up leading the Big Ten in yards per carry last season, the steady rise from promising backup to burgeoning star will also revolve around what has long been his favorite pastime — cooking.
It began when he was in the fifth grade and his mother took a second job at night as a nurse's aide at the local hospital where she worked during the day as a secretary. With her older daughter LaKeisha away at college and her older son LeRoy in the military, Tracy Johnson left her youngest child to fend for himself at dinnertime.
"I've got to be honest, people told me I was crazy to let him be alone at his age and to trust him by himself, to handle grownup things, but he's always been mature," Tracy Johnson said Thursday. "I told them, 'He's going to be fine.' Being a single mom, he had to take a lot of responsibilities so I could work."
Ty Johnson didn't start out making four-course meals for himself.
"It was small stuff, like spaghetti with garlic and butter. It was good, so the next time I added spaghetti sauce, then cooking up ground beef and everything," Johnson said. "Going from there to like steak, chicken, veggies, it was really good."
With the help of the cooking shows he watched — from Rachael Ray's "30 Minute Meals" to Guy Fieri's "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives" to "The Iron Chef," which Johnson quickly realized was "a little too advanced for me" — he started cooking for others.
"He actually does better than me now. … I let him cook when I'm at work," said Tracy Johnson, who works as a claims processor for CareFirst. "When he's on spring break, he's home cooking. It's nice to come home to a hot meal when you work all day."
Johnson tells the story of how he learned to check if the spaghetti was cooked. According to Johnson, he said his mother told him to throw a couple of strands against the wall. If they stuck, it was time to eat.
"One time I used like half a pot of noodles and was throwing them against the wall," he said. "I was pretty excited about that. It was a chance for me to throw food."
When the story was relayed to his mother, Tracy Johnson burst out laughing.
"He's messing with you," Tracy Johnson said. "He has done that but I didn't tell him to do that."
As brash as he can be about his culinary talents — Johnson told a Big Ten Network reporter recently that he was the "best chef in the world" — a player who gained 9.1 yards a carry last season and broke off 10 runs of 40 yards or more the last 10 games always deflects the attention he gets for football.
"When it comes to football, he's always questioned himself," Tracy Johnson said. "He's never thought he's where he needs to be, he always feels there's room for improvement. He could go out and win a Super Bowl, and that kid will say, 'Nope, I've still got more to do.' That's just him.'"
Not only did Johnson break a 65-year-old record for yards per carry by a Maryland running back with at least 100 carries in a season, he would have likely been the overall leader in the Football Bowl Subdivision had he carried the ball the requisite 10 times a game. Johnson had 110 carries for 1,004 yards in Maryland's 6-7 season.
Johnson also caught 16 passes for 206 yards, including a 66-yard catch-and-run touchdown at Penn State.
"Personally I can improve on everything," said Johnson. "I'm always looking to get better. Definitely my pass pro[tection] is the one thing. Running the ball, I can always improve that. Running my [pass] routes, I can improve that. Just knowing the offensive schemes, each play, I definitely came a long way with that."
Part of Johnson's attitude comes from the approach Maryland running backs coach Anthony Tucker takes with all his players.
"I'm pretty critical of everyone in that room, including him, regardless of what you've accomplished or haven't accomplished," Tucker said. "There's never a day when he's not getting coached. It's hard for him to walk around and really be feeling [good about] himself based on what he did last year. There's always someone telling him what he can do to get better."
It also comes from Johnson's roots in Western Maryland.
"He wasn't a national recruit, he didn't have a ton of attention," Tucker said. "What you're seeing now is the growth that people didn't see coming. Somebody saw it and we're lucky to have him here. There's still a ton there more that we haven't even seen to how good that kid can be."
Said his mother, "He's very humble. He's so thankful to be at Maryland. Where we come from, we don't produce a lot of [Division I] athletes in Cumberland. He's so grateful to be there, and to be getting his education. I think that's what keeps him grounded, to be honest. If you're a doubter, it will fuel him to do even better. He doesn't say a word, he just goes out and does it."
Tucker said that Johnson is the perfect kind of player to lead what should be the deepest position group on the team next season. In a fast-paced offense that rotates its backs more than most, Johnson doesn't seem to mind sharing the load with Harrison and others, including Funk and incoming freshman Anthony McFarland, this fall.
"I don't know if it's the culture of that room or really what I'm hoping to instill in that room. … The best thing about that room is there's competition, there's not one guy in the room that should ever think they should get comfortable, even if it's Ty," Tucker said.
Said Johnson, "I think anyone that plays football wants to play, no matter what position you are, you want to be on the field. But with the type of offense we run, it's so high-tempo, you can get gassed really quick. You have to understand what you want to do as a team, as a unit."
Keeping his speed
Johnson admits that his inability to finish some of his longer runs last season in the opposing team's end zone was frustrating. He has spent much of spring practice looking to improve on that. Part of it came from also playing special teams, as most of Maryland's best players do.
"No one wants to get caught [from behind], it's kind of embarrassing," Johnson said.
Still one of Maryland's fastest players — and for now the team's fastest running back — Johnson knows that he's slowed down a little since his high school days, when he was hand-timed in the 40 at a blazing 4.28 seconds right before the Big 33 game as a 175-pound senior.
That's where Johnson's cooking comes into play. Always looking to eat healthy, Johnson rarely ventures out from his apartment onto nearby Route 1 for its many high-caloric choices. This spring, he has spent as much as $130 a week in one stretch to help put back on some of the 10 to 15 pounds that he lost during a bout with stomach flu this winter.
"That was when I was at the highest weight I wanted to be at," said Johnson, who would like to play at around 208 pounds this fall.
As Funk, Greene, Harrison and late-arriving sophomore running back Ike Ogwuegbu chowed down on the chicken parmigiana and spaghetti dinner Wednesday, Johnson was asked if he's ever considered cooking for the offensive linemen he typically credits after each of his big performances.
"That's some big guys," he said. "That's a lot of cooking and a lot of money."
Maybe in a few years.