Leistikow: Hawkeyes uncover a much-needed star in 'Superman' Kaleb Johnson
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. − Less than 13 months ago, Kaleb Johnson was a high school senior running back from Ohio who was verbally committed to California.
On Saturday, he became just the second freshman in Iowa football history to rush for 200 yards in a game, leading the Hawkeyes to a 24-3 trouncing of Purdue at Ross-Ade Stadium.
So, it’s no wonder that Johnson feels like he’s truly living out a strange and wonderful dream.
“It’s the best feeling I’ve had in my life, for real,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to lie. This feels so good.”
Johnson was among the 69,250 fans inside Kinnick Stadium last Oct. 9, when the third-ranked Hawkeyes scored a late touchdown to beat fourth-ranked Penn State, 23-20. It was on that official visit and during that game that Johnson felt his heart change. He knew then that Iowa City was the place he wanted to be. Four days later, he decommitted from Cal and pledged his football allegiance to the Hawkeyes.
“It was just the atmosphere,” he said. “I already felt home.”
That Penn State game a year ago is credited with helping current five-star Hawkeye Xavier Nwankpa swing his decision, and the same was true for future Hawkeye and five-star offensive lineman Kadyn Proctor. Considering that electric game also helped deliver Johnson into the Hawkeyes’ lap, what a haul that ended up being.
Johnson has been a game-changer for a Hawkeye offense that has been desperately seeking weapons outside of all-Big Ten-caliber tight end Sam LaPorta. He got his first career start on Oct. 22 at Ohio State, where nothing went well for the Hawkeyes. Last week, he got the featured-back nod and led Iowa’s rushing attack with 93 yards on 13 carries. And on Saturday on a windy day in West Lafayette, he exploded for 200 yards on 22 carries. And the way he runs, Johnson makes it look easy.
He almost glides into the hole while running full speed and rarely is knocked down by the first tackle attempt. He's given more firepower to Iowa's outside-zone running scheme, as evidenced by a 44-yard run on the first play of a second-quarter drive that led to a field goal.
“Kaleb’s a special kid,” said defensive-line teammate Lukas Van Ness, a physical marvel himself. "I noticed from the day he got in, he already looked like a college-ready running back. Big, strong, fast, agile. More than that, he’s just humble. He goes about his work in a very focused way.”
Johnson's Twitter handle is @KJ_Superman2. He said he got the nickname "Superman" from Hamilton High School buddies after a 320-yard, three-touchdown outing as a prep. The nickname stuck. Wouldn't you let "Superman" stick?
Iowa safety Kaevon Merriweather had a good laugh when talking about Johnson. Merriweather chuckled that even though the muscular Johnson looks like a veteran player physically, he's reminded when conversing with Johnson that he’s still just a freshman.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, who is no doubt fortunate to have "Superman" on his team − especially with redshirt sophomores Gavin and Leshon Williams limited in practice this past week − echoed those sentiments.
“He’s a great young guy, great personality, great to work with,” Ferentz said. “He’s still figuring it out as a back, but he did pretty good today for not knowing what he’s doing sometimes.
“He just seems to have a really good feel. Hits the hole hard and then finishes some runs off. I can’t remember the last time we had one like that.”
The one like that was Johnson’s first carry of the second half.
On a straight-ahead handoff, Johnson wiggled between four Purdue defenders and sprung loose into the secondary, then up the right sideline. Clear sailing; nobody on Purdue’s defense ran him down. For a 6-foot, 212-pound back, Johnson has some jets. The 75-yard touchdown gave Iowa a 24-3 lead that would hold up; neither team scored in the final 14 minutes, 43 seconds.
“I just saw my line blocking, and I saw green grass,” Johnson said. “I just left. I went.”
As the game went on, Johnson was approaching 200 yards. After a 3-yard carry in the fourth quarter to reach an even 200, he got the rest of the day off. He is the first Hawkeye since Akrum Wadley at Northwestern in 2015 (in another memorable road rout) to rush for 200 in a game.
“I wasn’t really focused on my yards. I was just focused on beating them,” Johnson said. “Then somebody told me I had 200 yards, and I was like, ‘Dang, 200 yards? Wow.’ It’s a blessing.”
The Hawkeyes have needed a good story or two to emerge on offense, and Johnson is that good story. While Ferentz correctly noted that Johnson’s still learning what he needs to do to be a complete running back at this level, he’s got undeniable talent and ability. While the Williamses' injuries are unfortunate (both played limited snaps Saturday, and true freshman Jaziun Patterson got four carries in his second career game), Johnson has emerged as Iowa’s second-best offensive player.
The Hawkeyes look to have a go-to guy in the backfield that they can build around for years to come. Much like Wisconsin discovered something in true freshman Braelon Allen a year ago, Iowa has uncovered a young gem in Johnson. And next week, Allen and Johnson will clash at Kinnick Stadium in what’s become an important game in the Big Ten West Division race after Illinois’ stunning home loss to Michigan State.
“Just watching him go out there and play at a high level and see the game at that speed as a freshman, the sky’s the limit for him,” Merriweather said. “As long as he keeps his head down and continues to work, he’s probably going to be one of the best backs in the Big Ten.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.