After Maryland finished a disappointing 4-8 season with a disastrous 66-3 home loss to Penn State in November, Ty Johnson believed he had played his final game as a Terp.
Despite his rushing yards dropping from his breakout sophomore year — a stat that was largely reflective of an offense that had lost its top two quarterbacks three games into the season — Johnson felt he had done enough to get drafted by an NFL team.
“In my mind, I was ready to go. I felt like I put a lot on film and whatnot,” Johnson said Tuesday night after practice. “After that game, I felt like, ‘I’m going to get drafted, everything’s looking up.’ ”
Johnson then went home to Cumberland for winter break in mid-December to think more about his decision. By early January, Johnson started to have second thoughts.
Long before he changed his uniform number to 24, which he wore in high school, long before he changed his hair style for what seemed like the hundredth time since coming to college, Johnson did something to change the fortunes of the 2018 Maryland season.
He changed his mind.
Despite the protestations of his mother, Tracy, who had raised him and his two older siblings by herself in the small Western Maryland town and feared him getting hurt as a senior, Johnson thought he had something else to get as a college player — his degree.
“That was just the most important thing overall. The first priority was to get the degree,” he said. “You could go to the NFL and Week 1, I get hurt and I’m done. So that was a big deal. My mom and I went back and forth on it, but I told her it was my decision. I’m grown, I’m a man and everything. She had to respect the decision.”
Said Tracy: “He said, ‘What if something happens and I don’t have my degree? I have to have my degree.’ That was the final straw. He said, ‘No, I’m not leaving without it. He went to [coach DJ] Durkin and said, ‘I’m coming back. I’m not leaving without that paper.’ I was pushing him to leave. He ended up being the smart one in that situation and went back.”
Johnson will get his degree in family sciences in December. Before then, the senior running back hopes to help Maryland reach to a bowl game, as he did his sophomore year, as well as continue to move up the school’s all-time lists in rushing and all-purpose yards.
A week after returning a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown in a 42-21 loss at then-No. 15 Michigan — he also had a 100-yard return last season at Ohio State — Johnson became the fourth Maryland player to surpass 4,000 career all-purpose yards in Saturday’s 34-7 home win over Rutgers.
With 132 yards on nine carries, including a 65-yard touchdown run, against Rutgers, Johnson moved into fourth place in all-time rushing yardage (2,564) and needs another 408 to finish his career behind only LaMont Jordan and Charlie Wysocki.
With 4,081 all-purpose yards, Johnson should pass Stefon Diggs during Saturday’s game at No. 19 Iowa and should finish third in that category, too, behind Torrey Smith and Jordan.
As a sophomore, Johnson already broke what was then a 65-year-old record for Maryland players with at least 100 carries in a season by averaging 9.1 yards an attempt.
“He’s a humble young man, but to be in the category of the four players mentioned — in the history of Maryland football only four players with 4,000 yards, and he’s one of those guys, [it’s] a great honor for him,” interim coach and offensive coordinator Matt Canada said after the Rutgers game.
Johnson deftly sheds the praise heaped on him as easily as if they were would-be tacklers, typically giving credit to his offensive line for creating holes and the wide receivers for blocking on the edge.
It’s something Tracy told her son to do after he scored his first touchdown in youth football the first time he carried the ball.
Johnson was asked after practice Tuesday if the company he is now keeping means anything more than it did Saturday, when he said his mother was more excited than he was.
“Everyone after the game was like, ‘Oooooh,’ ” Johnson said. “It’s cool and everything. I’ve just got to keep focusing on the here and now and then after the season talk about it. Just got to keep moving forward.”
It meant something to Johnson to see a lot of familiar faces and others from his hometown on the Terp Walk as the team made its way into the stadium Saturday. Tracy had arranged a bus to take about 70 people to the game.
“Just to know there’s a bus that drove like 2½, three hours just to come see me is pretty nice," Johnson said Tuesday. "It makes you feel good, it gives you confidence and everything before the game.”
Said Tracy: “I think he’s just grateful for everything that’s happened to him. To come from such a small town and a single-parent home, I think it makes him feel blessed to have these good things happen to him.”
The player Johnson has developed into is not the one who first came to Maryland, a player that was barely noticed. His only serious offer other than Maryland’s was from Albany. Even after showing flashes of talent his freshman year, including a 43-yard touchdown run in a win over Rutgers to close a 3-9 season, Johnson had doubts.
“Going into his sophomore year, he was a little insecure,” his mother said. “New coach [in Durkin], he wasn’t sure. It ended up being his best season by far.”
After a slow start the first three games as a sophomore, Johnson rushed for a career-high 204 yards and two touchdowns on just seven carries in a 50-7 rout of Purdue. He had four more games with over 100 rushing yards, finishing the season with 1,004 yards after running for 159 yards and two touchdowns in a loss to Boston College in the Quick Lane Bowl.
Though his numbers dropped last season to 875 rushing yards and his average per carry dipped to 6.4 yards, mainly because quarterbacks Tyrrell Pigrome and Kasim Hill were lost early to torn ACLs, Johnson didn’t lose confidence. He also gained some weight and muscle on the recommendation of NFL scouts.
This season has been feast or famine for Johnson. In three games, he has gained over 100 yards and scored a touchdown in each. In the other three, he has rushed for 30 yards or fewer, including just 3 yards on five carries against Michigan.
Going into that game, Johnson was coming off a performance in a 42-13 win over Minnesota that included a career-long 81-yard touchdown. Johnson said the run didn’t help restore or even raise his confidence level.
“My confidence is always there,” he said. “I might be in and [a run] might not hit. Obviously there’s going to be runs where I get stopped. All the running backs get stopped. You’ve got to keep moving forward because it’s going to happen.”
After the loss to Michigan, Tracy called her son to congratulate him on the kickoff return for a touchdown that briefly gave the Terps a 7-3 lead.
“He said, ‘Yeah, whatever. I’ve got to do better,’ ” she said. “I said, ‘Even pros have bad days.’ He said, ‘I’m not supposed to have bad days.’ He’s very hard on himself because he knows he can do it.”
When he breaks off long runs, especially during home games, Johnson can often see it unfold. He said that during his long touchdown run against Rutgers, he looked up at the huge screen showing it to the crowd.
“I think there’s a few pictures where you see me looking up in the air. I’m just looking at the Jumbotron to see where [the defenders are] so I can slow down and just cruise," he said with a smile Tuesday.
Halfway through his final season, Johnson is not slowing down.
There’s more football to be played.
And graduation looms.