The first time Ty Johnson touched the ball as a 7-year-old playing in a peewee football league in Cumberland, he ran nearly the length of the 80-yard field and scored.
As he returned to the sideline to celebrate with his teammates, Tracy Johnson gave the youngest of her three children some motherly advice.
“I remember telling him when he came to the sideline, ‘You march back over there and thank the linemen, because you don’t make that without them,’ ” Tracy Johnson recalled. “He’s been selfless ever since.”
Not only has Johnson kept making long touchdown runs throughout a football career that has reached its junior year at Maryland, the now 20-year-old typically gives more credit to those who open the holes than he takes for himself.
“That’s how my mom told me how to do things. That’s how my coach always told me how to do things,” Johnson said Tuesday. “It’s not me that made the play happen, it’s everyone on the field that made the play happen.”
From those early lessons in Western Maryland, the thought of a wild celebration on the field has never entered his mind. It won’t happen Saturday in the 2017 season opener at Texas if Johnson scores, as he did 10 times in his his first two years, all but one on the ground.
“People always have their own things [to celebrate], I’m not going to judge ‘em on what they do,” Johnson said. “Myself personally, it’s just hand the ball to the ref and get to the sideline and celebrate with my teammates.”
Asked whether he has ever played with a running back who continually thanks his linemen after a big run, Maryland junior center Brendan Moore said: “That humble? Yes, it is unusual. We appreciate that. He understands what we’re doing and he respects it.”
In fact, it’s hard to get Johnson to say anything about his accomplishments, which last year included going over 1,000 yards (1,004) and breaking a single-season school record with 9.1 yards a carry. The bulk of it — 788 yards — came in the five games during which Johnson rushed for more than 100 yards, including a career-high 204 on just seven carries against Purdue.
No player in Football Bowl Subdivision last season with at least 100 attempts averaged more per carry than Johnson, who had 110 rushes, with a season-high 15 coming in Maryland’s a 36-30 loss to Boston College in the Quick Lane Bowl.
“It’s just a statistic,” Johnson, who also caught 16 passes for 206 yards, including a 66-yard touchdown against Penn State, said of his yards per carry. “I’m glad I was able to achieve that, but I wouldn’t be able to achieve that without the linemen.
“That’s why I want to keep a good relationship with them. I talk to the linemen after each play and talk about it. Just having that connection and being tight with them. That statistic, that’s last year. I can’t run off that.”
One stat that summed how explosive Johnson was last season were the 10 runs of 40 yards or more, all in the team’s last 10 games. Johnson acknowledges that he usually believes he is one cut away from making a big run.
“I definitely have an expectation of wanting to break a long run every time I get it, but there’s especially times when Coach Tuck [running backs coach Anthony Tucker] showed us a certain look from the defense and what play would hit, and if I see that, I say, ‘This is definitely the one I can hit,’ ” Johnson said.
Second-year coach Maryland coach DJ Durkin appreciates the blue-collar approach of his burgeoning star.
“He’s a professional, he’s as focused and hard-working, and all those attributes you can name, that’s Ty,” Durkin said before a recent practice. “He’s very serious about what he does.”
After practice that afternoon, Johnson said: “With everything, whether it’s treatment or watching film or out here [at practice] … I’m being very detailed, I want to be perfect. No one’s perfect, but I want to be as close to that as possible."
It all goes back to what he learned from his first football coach — his mother. With her two older children in high school — Johnson has a 29-year-old brother and 27-year-old sister — Tracy Johnson coached up her “baby.”
Having grown up watching football with her father, rooting for the Terps and Washington Redskins, Tracy Johnson nearly didn’t let Ty play football at all.
“I was terrified, and his gym teacher [in elementary school] said, ‘You need to put this boy on a football team,” Tracy Johnson said with a laugh.
Tracy Johnson, who worked at a local hospital during the day as a secretary and at night as a nurse’s aide while raising three children as a single mother, used to go over the team’s playbook with her son every chance she could.
“When I was in peewee football and I got the playbook, my mom would set pennies out in front of me and show me who’s blocking who and where I’d have to run and everything,” Johnson recalled.”She definitely taught me a lot.”
Johnson’s longtime youth league coach in Cumberland credits Tracy Johnson with the way her son turned out.
“For his mother to raise him as a single parent, she’s done a wonderful job,” said Gary Legeer, who coached Johnson in both football and baseball from ages 8 to 15.
Legeer said he knew early on that he was watching a future star, perhaps even a future NFL player.
“He was just so far better and beyond and above everybody on the field,” Legeer said Tuesday. “He had the ‘it’ factor. … He was just like a stud football player. If it was third-and-20, I just gave him the ball and ran a jet sweep.”
Todd Appel, who coached Johnson at Fort Hill High, gets emotional when talking about his former star.
“What consumes him is his ability to help others,” Appel said. “He’s a humble servant to everyone he meets because that’s what makes for the best teammate, person, friend and son and somebody you really want to coach.”
Appel came to his office one day a few years ago and found Johnson painting it.
“He doesn’t care where you came from, or your athletic abilities, you can always find him helping that person,” Appel said. “I was busy and there was the star of the team painting my office just because he wanted to. He’s pretty special."
Unlike many college running backs who might transfer if they don’t get enough carries, Johnson relishes the way Durkin and offensive coordinator Walt Bell rotate him with others, including sophomore Lorenzo Harrison III.
Johnson said he became accustomed to sharing the role when he was in high school, where Appel ran a winged-t offense that featured his fullback.
“I got the ball the least amount of times. I’m kind of used to it already,” Johnson said during the Big Ten Media Days in Chicago in July. “My whole mentality is contribute when I can, whether it’s pass pro[tection], catching the ball out of the backfield, running the ball. That’s my mentality. How can I contribute? Not how many times I can touch the ball.”
As a junior at Fort Hill playing on a 14-0 team that won a state championship, Johnson carried the ball 95 times and averaged 17.4 yards an attempt. Despite writing letters and sending highlight tapes to over 50 schools, his only scholarship offer was from Albany, a Football Championship Subdivision team.
“I think our obscurity out here in the West[ern Maryland] hurt him more than our offense hurt him because he wasn’t noticed in the Beltway area in Baltimore and Washington,” Appel said this week.
The scholarship from Maryland — his only Football Bowl Subdivision offer — came after he attended a camp run for prospects by former Terps coach Randy Edsall before his senior year. Invited to the Big 33 Football Classic, Johnson played safety. Given a chance to return a kickoff, he nearly scored a touchdown.
“Ty kind of took it kind of personal,” Appel recalled. “He showed he could play against the elite of the elite. You could tell he belonged.”
MARYLAND AT A GLANCE
Coach: DJ Durkin (second year, 6-7 in 2016)
2016 record: 6-7, 3-5, fifth in the Big Ten East Division
Expected finish: Sixth in the Big Ten East in preseason poll
Saturday, at Texas, noon
Sept. 9, Towson, noon
Sept. 23, Central Florida, TBA
Sept. 30, at Minnesota, TBA
Oct. 7, at Ohio State TBA
Oct. 14, Northwestern, TBA
Oct. 21, at Wisconsin, noon
Oct. 28, Indiana, TBA
Nov. 4, Rutgers at Yankee Stadium, TBA
Nov. 11, Michigan, TBA
Nov. 18, at Michigan State, TBA
Nov. 25, Penn State, TBA