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PREP FOOTBALL '98 / EMPIRE LEAGUE

Katella's Johnson Gets His Turn in Spotlight

Running back, who was county's 10th-leading rusher last season, won't be overshadowed this year.

September 08, 1998|DAVE McKIBBEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Katella's Francis Johnson had a pretty good year. He set two school rushing records, helped lead his team to the playoffs for the first time in nine years and finished the season as the county's 10th-leading rusher.

But with people such as DeShaun Foster, Mike McNair, Michael Jones and David Vickers stealing the spotlight and the postseason honors, Johnson was one of the county's best-kept secrets.

He didn't seem to mind too much, perhaps because most of the players ahead of him have graduated and he knew his day would come.

"I just wanted to play," Johnson said. "It was great that they got everything. I would hope that if I did what they did, the attention would come to me. If it doesn't, I'm happy with it."

Said Katella Coach Dominik Unger: "There were a lot of great backs in the county last year. Francis just got lost in the shuffle. He was only a junior. Maybe that had something to do with it. What he did would have been great any other year."

Maybe Johnson's name isn't known throughout the county yet, but Empire League coaches and Division I college coaches know it. In addition to his 1,507 rushing yards last year, Johnson ran for 749 yards in only seven games as a sophomore.

Loara Coach John deFries said his team has taken great pride in holding Johnson under 100 yards the last two years.

"I think he's a good running back," deFries said. "Our kids just like playing against a great talent."

Johnson, who is getting a lot of attention from Oregon, Washington and Iowa, realizes he will be a marked man in the Empire League this season. He also knows the holes might not be as wide because his beefy offensive line has graduated.

This year's version averages 220 pounds, compared to last year's line, which averaged 270 pounds.

"We'll have to do more misdirection instead of going straight ahead," Unger said.

But don't expect Johnson to change his running philosophy much.

"I'll just hit the hole and go," he said. "I just look for the daylight. Where it is, I go."

Because of his size--5 feet 9, 180 pounds--and his running style, Johnson has been compared to a couple of well-known NFL mighty-mites.

"I've been told I run a little like Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders," he said. "I'm not sure about that. I do know that I hit the hole faster than a lot of people."

Johnson, a long jumper and 100-meter runner, also knows how to finish off a run. He was a favorite to win the Empire League 100-meter finals, but he was forced to pull out because of a hamstring injury.

"If I ever do get caught from behind, I try to make sure it doesn't happen again," he said.

It is that mentality and that speed that enabled Johnson to break Chris Higby's school single-game and single-season rushing record. His 282-yard performance against Century in only 16 carries broke Higby's single-game mark of 275 yards. He followed that with 189-yard, four-touchdown effort in the final regular-season game that broke Higby's season record.

Though his team was trounced by Santa Margarita in the first round of the Southern Section Division V playoffs, 45-7, Johnson rushed for a respectable 114 yards. The ending left Johnson with a bitter taste and made him want more this year.

"I want to get back to the playoffs this year," he said. "If I could lead the county in rushing, that would be great too."

If not, he won't sweat it.

"I just run for fun," he said. "But I'd like to be up there among the leaders."

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