Hard work paves the way for RB Johnson's productive spring at UConn
East Hartford — Ron Johnson has a tattoo on his left arm that sums up his approach to life.
"It's just shut up and work, basically," Johnson said. "That's how my mom raised me. You can't ask for handouts. You've got to go out and get it. You've got to go out and work hard."
Johnson, a junior running back from Naples, Fla., has worked his way into potentially playing a more prominent role on the UConn football team next season.
In Saturday's Blue-White spring game before 5,500 fans at Rentschler Field, Johnson showed off the fruits of his labor, rushing for a game-high 91 yards and a touchdown in the Blue's 28-3 victory. He also caught four passes for 24 yards.
"First and foremost, you go into every game thinking you're going to have the best game of your life," Johnson said. "Today I was fortunate enough to make a few plays and put a smile on the fans' faces, and that's what it's for."
The Huskies made improvements in every phase of the game during the spring that included 15 practices and Saturday's scrimmage. The Blue team, comprised of starters, went up against the White, which represented the reserves.
Rank Johnson's progress among most encouraging developments.
"His evolution as a runner that you had a chance to see today came because of his evolution as a worker," coach Bob Diaco said. "This guy approaches the day differently than he did. It's always been there. His family is that way. They're hard-working, awesome, full-on, passionate, tough people. And Ron worked at that level."
Diaco added that Johnson dealt with the typical adjustments a student-athlete has to make going from high school to college. So it's taken time for Johnson to blossom.
"He's just now settling in to really who he is and his DNA actually as a professional, mature worker," Diaco said. "And he goes about his business that way. He studies the game and studies his plays. He's very coachable. There's no excuse-making. ... I'm so proud of Ron Johnson. Big things ahead for Ron."
UConn's offense could use a reliable and productive running back. Junior Arkeel Newsome has yet to reach his full potential. The Huskies ranked 10th in the American Athletic Conference in rushing offense last season at 124.8 yards per game and 11th in scoring offense (17.2 points).
Last fall, Johnson rushed for just 224 yards on 88 attempts, accounting for a paltry 2.5 yards per carry, and scored five touchdowns. He often tentatively attacked the holes and was swallowed up.
Johnson looked quicker and more confident on Saturday.
Take his 63-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Once he broke a tackle and turned the corner, he turned on the jets down the sidelines, leaving his defenders in hot pursuit before finding the end zone.
"You can't get run down," said Johnson, whose longest run in his career covered just 29 yards. "It's embarrassing. My homeboys would pick on me."
Quarterback Bryant Shirreffs, who went 9-for-12 for 95 yards in a limited role while dealing with the flu, liked what he saw out of 5-foot-11, 220-pound Johnson.
"He was looking really fast," Shirreffs said. "The way he was making cuts and just hitting the next gear, I was really impressed, especially on that long touchdown and then another run when he crossed the field. I threw him one screen and I wasn't sure if he was going to get a first down and he made a play, which was really encouraging."
Johnson credited his teammates and coaching staff, including strength and conditioning coordinator Mike Balis and running backs coach David Corley, for his improvement. He said he has a better understanding of the playbook and offense.
"We work extremely hard," Johnson said. "I don't like taking credit for the man that I've become. I thank coach Diaco as well as coach Balis and coach Corley for that extra push. It's paying off. We're all working hard."
After 15 practices and Saturday's scrimmage, Diaco is thrilled with his team's progress from last fall.
"I'm just excited about the team, excited about the direction, excited about the energy, excited about the communication and sights and sounds," Diaco said. "It just sounds right. It feels right. ... There's so many, so many positive things for us to focus on."
News and notes
• Senior Garrett Anderson and redshirt freshman Tyler Davis (10-for-17, 83 yards, one interception), saw the bulk of the playing time at quarterback. Anderson shook off two early interceptions to lead the Blue team on three scoring drives, going 10-for-18 for 177 yards. He had a 6-yard touchdown run. "It felt nice to bounce back, that's for sure," Anderson said. ... Defense anchored UConn's success last season. It appears that will be a strength again. "Defensively, we looked strong and stout most of the day," Diaco said. "We played a lot of players over there." ... Diaco praised the play of kicker Bobby Puyol, who booted a 47-yard field goal for the White team's only points. ... Redshirt freshman Matt Peart and redshirt sophomore linebacker Chris Britton, the two most improved players during the spring, served as captains. ... Senior Richard Levy on switching from left tackle to left guard: "I adjusted very quickly to it, which I was very surprised that I did. It did feel like it was my natural position." ... UConn opens the 2016 season Sept. 1 vs. Maine at The Rent.