Pernell: 2019 Recruiting Class Position Spotlight: Running Back
Johnson possesses legit game-breaking speed. The 5-foot-10, 175-pounder is one of the fastest running backs on the entire East Coast. In March of 2017, Johnson’s then high school coach, Nunzio Campanile, told NJ.com that Johnson was “probably the fastest player to ever play at Bergen Catholic.” A track standout, Johnson won sectional titles in the 100 meter dash in both 2017 and 2018 and was third at the 2018 NJSIAA Championships. He won a sectional title in the 200 meters in 2017, when he also finished fourth in the long jump. Indoors, Johnson finished second in the 200 meters at the 2018 NJSIAA Meet of Champions and second in the 55 meter dash at the 2017 NJSIAA Championships. He has career bests of 6.54 seconds in the 55 meters, 10.75 in the 100 meters, 21.46 in the 200 meters and 22′ 1.5″ in the long jump. This past March, Johnson told the Lincoln Journal Star that he’d been running the 100 meters in the 10.5-second range in practice during that spring.
Johnson, who is ranked a four-star prospect by both Rivals and ESPN, recorded an impressive 96.72 SPARQ score at The Nike Opening Regional in New Jersey this past April. He ran a 4.54 in the 40-yard dash, posted 4.33 seconds in the 20-yard shuttle and recorded a 33.4-inch vertical jump.
This past season, Johnson led Bergen Catholic to a 10-2 record and state runner-up finish after winning the state title as a junior. He was named a third-team all-state selection and a first-team pick among non-public schools after rushing for 1,334 yards and scoring 12 total touchdowns. Johnson is a smooth, patient runner who gets to top speed quickly. He excels as a one-cut and go runner and displays elite burst and an extra gear when he hits the open field. His versatility, speed and big-play ability make him a great fit in Frost’s offense. Johnson can also be lined up in the slot or split out wide. He’ll also get a look at returning kicks.
Prior to the 2018 season, Grayson (GA) High School recruiting coordinator Kenyatta Watson Sr. called Ronald Thompkins the best player on the Grayson team – one of the most talented high school rosters in the country. The Rams have two of the top 30 players in the 2019 class, according to the 247 Sports Composite rankings, and Watson estimated that 15 Rams would be making the leap to Division I college football.
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Thompkins joined the class on June 15, seemingly out of the blue. He had taken official visits to LSU (April 6) and Penn State (April 20) and had publicly named a top four of USC, Tennessee, Mississippi State and Penn State in May. The public perception was that Mississippi State was his leader at the time, but in fact, Thompkins’ decision essentially had become a two-horse race between Nebraska and Alabama.
Thompkins had been a primary target of Nebraska’s for the last two coaching staffs. Former head coach Mike Riley and running backs coach Reggie Davis offered Thompkins in August of 2017, and when Frost and his staff visited Grayson when they arrived in Lincoln, they took the mantle as well. But he wasn’t a new name. Tight ends coach Sean Beckton first saw Thompkins as an eighth-grader.
Thompkins committed to Nebraska sight unseen because of the relationships he had built with Scott Frost, Ryan Held and Sean Beckton. He also knew a pair of former Grayson players Mohamed Barry and Breon Dixon, who raved about things happening around the Husker program. Thompkins also heard glowing reviews of Nebraska from Kenyatta Watson Sr., who visited Lincoln in June of 2016, when he accompanied his son on an unofficial visit during a FNL event.
The biggest concern with Thompkins moving forward is can he get (and stay) healthy? Heading into his junior year, Thompkins was regarded as one of the most physically gifted players in the South. His reputation earned him early offers from schools like Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Florida State, Georgia, LSU, Oregon, Penn State, Tennessee and USC. Unfortunately, his last two seasons were marred by separate knee injuries. Thompkins only played six games his junior year before he tore the ACL in his right knee. Then on August 25 he tore the ACL in his left knee on just the 7th carry of his senior season. If Thompkins can stay healthy he could end up being the steal of this class, which is saying something for a player who is still regarded as a four-star recruit by ESPN.
There were some schools who viewed Thompkins as a corner, safety or wide receiver, but the Huskers see him as the prototype of what they want out of the running back position. He’s capable of lining up all over the field, and talented enough to beat defenders between the tackles and in space. As a sophomore, and prior to his injury as a junior, Thompkins showed great burst and top-end speed – he ran a 4.5 at an Alabama camp. He also brings a physicality to the position that belies his impressive athleticism. When healthy, he’s a complete back who can run with power and has the agility and speed to make a defender miss in the open field and break long runs.
The staff had hoped to get Dedrick Mills enrolled in January so that he could participate in spring ball. Unfortunately, Mills wasn’t able to graduate early and instead will arrive in Lincoln this summer. The Husker staff is confident that Mills will complete the remaining academic requirements to graduate in May. There had been a lot of questions as to whether or not Mills would ultimately be a part of this class. On December 19, when the Early Signing Period began, Mills was appearing in a Ware County, Georgia, courthouse after turning himself in because of a bench warrant. He had received a ticket back in July for driving on a suspended license and then failed to show up for court. According to a Ware County court official, Mills received probation for his failure to appear. Despite the road bump, Mills was able to put all speculation to rest when he ended up signing with Nebraska on January 14.
The hope is that Mills can come in and take over the role Devine Ozigbo held last season. When people think of Frost’s offenses, they tend to remember guys like De’Anthony Thomas, LaMichael James and Kenjon Barner, and for good reason. But they tend to ignore guys like Royce Freeman and LeGarrette Blount. Frost has always liked a “traditional” back to be heavily involved in his rotation, and that certainly won’t change now that he’s coaching in the Big Ten.
Originally from Waycross, Georgia, Mills played his high school ball for Ware County High School, where he started every game of his career. A standout running back and linebacker, Mills rushed for 1,211 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior and earned all-state recognition as a linebacker after totaling 96 tackles and 11 tackles for loss. Mills had scholarship offers from Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Auburn, Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, and several others before signing with Georgia Tech as part of the 2016 class. He made an immediate impact. As a true freshman, Mills rushed for 771 yards (5.1 ypc) and 12 touchdowns in just nine games (85.7 ypg). But his season wasn’t without incidents. Mills was suspended for the Mercer game early in the year after he reportedly overslept and was late for practice. He was later suspended in November for the Virginia Tech and Virginia games because of his second failed drug test for marijuana. He capped the year with a 31-carry, 169-yard performance against Kentucky to earn MVP honors in the TaxSlayer Bowl. Mills earned Freshman All-American honors after finishing near the top in all freshman running back stats.
Mills headed into his sophomore season as a preseason All-ACC selection and a member of the Maxwell Award watch list. However, less than three weeks before the season opener, Mills was kicked off the team for a third positive drug test, which triggered an automatic dismissal. He ended up transferring to Garden City (KS) Community College, where he redshirted the 2017 season after breaking his collar bone less than two games into the season and logging just seven carries.
Garden City head coach Jeff Sims knows several Nebraska coaches well. In particular, he worked with outside linebackers coach Jovan DeWitt at Florida Atlantic under Carl Pelini for two years. Thanks to Sims’ familiarity with coaches like DeWitt and Ryan Held, the Huskers were able to get in on Mills last spring before anyone else. Nebraska looked into the situation at Georgia Tech and came away confident it’s something that is not of concern any longer. Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson praised Mills as both a player and person following his dismissal, and Jeff Sims also vouched for the talented back. Frost offered Mills on March 8, becoming the first program to do so as a juco recruit, and then hosted him April 21 for the Red-White Spring Game. Mills would eventually commit a few days following his 2018 season opener with GCCC on September 4.
This past season Mills picked up where he left off in Atlanta. He was one of the most productive junior college running backs in the country, helping to lead Garden City to an undefeated regular season and a Jayhawk Conference title. The Broncbusters ended up losing to East Mississippi C.C. 10-9 in the NJCAA National Championship game, finishing No. 2 in the national rankings. Mills earned honorable mention NJCAA All-American honors with 236 carries for 1,358 rushing yards which was fourth in the nation and led the country with 19 rushing touchdowns. He produced six 100-yard rushing efforts in ten games and had at least 240 rushing yards in three games. Mills is regarded as a four-star recruit, the No. 1 RB and No. 12 overall juco prospect by Rivals.
The 5-foot-11, 215-pound Mills is a powerful, downhill runner with great vision, balance and patience. He excels running between the tackles and is a guy defenses get tired of tackling once the fourth quarter comes around. He’s a prototypical ‘Big Ten’ back and should be an excellent complement to speedier skill players like Maurice Washington, Miles Jones and Mills’ fellow 2019 classmates Wandale Robinson, Rahmir Johnson and Ronald Thompkins. “He’s a great running back,” Jeff Sims told the Lincoln Journal Star back in September. “He’s an NFL tailback.” There was also talk inside the Georgia Tech program that Mills had the talent and potential to be the best back Paul Johnson ever had. If everything goes to plan, you can expect to see Mills getting 10, 12, 15 carries a game this coming season. Grade: B+
Prior to contributing to HuskerMax, Jeremy Pernell co-founded the all-football website N2FL.com. From 2002-2014, he served as the editor in chief of the college football portion of the website which focused heavily on talent evaluation, which included NCAA recruiting and the NFL Draft. He has analyzed and covered the NCAA and NFL for 25 years. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.