A few strides into his first 40-yard dash during Wednesday’s NFL Pro Day at Maryland, running back Ty Johnson pulled up, poking with his shoes at the turf field inside the Cole Field House Performance Center.
Some wondered whether the calf injury that short-circuited his senior year last fall, causing his numbers to drop dramatically from the previous two seasons and Johnson to miss his last two college games, was bothering him.
After redoing his first dash, Johnson ran a second.
This time he exploded, as if shot out of an imaginary cannon. In unison, most of the 40 scouts in attendance clicked on their stop watches and immediately began scribbling down what they had just witnessed.
They didn’t even seem to notice the 5-foot-10, 210-pound Johnson pull up again briefly as he crossed the finish line.
Though Johnson later acknowledged some tightness in his hamstring, a player who was once among the most explosive runners in the Big Ten, if not the country, had sent a message to the 29 NFL teams represented.
Just as he did early in his college career after being ignored by nearly every Football Bowl Subdivision team coming out of high school in Cumberland, Johnson seems ready to prove his doubters wrong again.
Johnson said that he has simply moved on after not being invited to this year’s NFL’s scouting combine.
Asked what he did to get over the snub, Johnson said: “Just work. That’s all you can do. You can’t be so hurt about it that you take your eyes off the prize. It’s just one of those things. It happened, move forward.”
It initially gnawed at him as he watched the combine on television.
“I don’t know how that stuff works, but when I was watching the combine in my hotel room down in Florida, some guys I know personally, they ran well, but some [other] guys I was like, ‘C’mon,’ ” Johnson said.
“I came here ready to run. I was like, ‘Hey, I’m going to run fast today.’ I didn’t tell the scouts how I was running in Fort Lauderdale [where he is training], but it’s, ‘hey, I’m running fast.’ ”
The fastest 40 time Johnson ran Wednesday — reports on social media said it was a 4.26 — would have made him .03 faster than Mississippi safety Zedrick Woods, who had the best time at the combine.
It shouldn’t be much of a shock.
Aside from becoming only the fourth player in school history to compile more than 4,000 all-purpose yards, finishing as the program’s fourth-leading rusher with 2,635 yards and setting a school single-season record by averaging 9.1 yards per carry as a sophomore, Johnson’s breakaway speed was also obvious as a kick returner.
Johnson’s career highlights include a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown at Ohio State as a sophomore, as well as one for 98 yards at Michigan last season.
“I think that’s all going to help,” Johnson said.
Though the importance of special teams in the NFL has been diminished with rule changes in recent years, Johnson’s ability to play on kickoff and punt coverage could also be noticed this summer in training camp if he doesn’t get drafted next month.
“No one really talks about it, but I was the starting right guard on punt coverage. No one knows I had four tackles on punts,” Johnson said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, I do a little bit of everything.’ I played kickoff [coverage], too. I always bring that up because everyone wants to talk about just the returning.”
Johnson said the meetings he had with scouts and coaches at the East-West Shrine game in January were even more “intense” than when he was in high school and couldn’t generate much interest from college teams.
“It was worse than high school. I thought it was going to be easier,” he said. “I’ve never had to sell myself to so many people in a short amount of time.”
Johnson said that he got his weight up to around 217 pounds while he was training in Florida, but after talking with his agent shed about seven pounds “so I could fly today.”
It seemed to be a pretty good strategy, as Johnson appeared to be the fastest among the 15 players trying out.
“I’ve learned so much [during the training process],” Johnson said. “Some of the best coaching, and everything down in Fort Lauderdale. It’s just been a process, learning how to talk with scouts when they ask you certain questions.”
Johnson also doesn’t seem upset about the way his career took a bit of a detour as a senior.
The combination of some nagging injuries and the emergence of redshirt freshman Anthony McFarland Jr. left Johnson as an afterthought in interim coach Matt Canada's offense. He finished with 506 rushing yards — about half of what he had as a sophomore — on 66 carries.
“I believe my role got really diminished when I got hurt,” Johnson. “I think it was one of those things where the senior guy, the vet, got hurt and the young guy had to step up. A-Mac really took that role and did a great job with it and I’m really excited for him the upcoming season.”
As much as scouts have talked about what Johnson experienced individually at Maryland, he said many have also discussed what happened off the field, with the heatstroke death of offensive lineman Jordan McNair and the turmoil that enveloped the program, leading to the firing of third-year coach DJ Durkin.
“I just tell them, it really was rough, it really was a crapshoot,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we all came together. We still played the game. Even though it might not have been a winning outcome, we still tried and gave it our best. Just going through that, you learn a lot, you grow as a person.”
While trying to push his college career behind him as fast as possible — “I believe I did what I could while I was here with the opportunities I was given,” he said — Johnson thinks the constant turmoil he felt as a Terp will help him in his transition to the NFL.
Asked what his most salable asset might be for scouts to consider, Johnson said: “I’m adaptable. That’s what I tell them all the time, just because of all the coaches that I’ve had.
“That’s something I’m more proud of than my speed and everything. I had four different head coaches, four different running backs coaches, three different offensive coordinators, and I’ve had success with all of them.”
What Johnson did Wednesday on Pro Day validated what at least one of his former Maryland teammates thought of him.
“He’s always been a freak, man,” said linebacker Tre Watson, who also wasn’t invited to the combine despite being named first-team All-Big Ten. “From the day I came in, freakish in the weight room, freakish on the field doing all those things — benched 27 reps [of 225 pounds], run mid-4.2 [seconds].
“That’s kind of insane, especially someone that’s over 210 pounds. He’s an explosive athlete. I wish he could have given me a little tenth of that 40. It would have been helped me a lot too. That’s might be why he hurt himself, running too dang fast.”
Exactly how fast Johnson ran is not clear, since neither scouts nor Maryland athletic department officials would reveal the time.
“I guess we’ll have to wait and find out,” Johnson said a with a sly smile.