They had seen him during spring camp. Watched him against their own players. But against a real opponent, Oakland, in an exhibition game, they were given an idea of what could come on one 57-yard run that included everything he has shown since: open-field speed, a stiff-arm and a spin move.
It was called back, but in that moment, the Lions sensed something potentially special.
“I’m like, ‘OK, this guy is going to be a player,’" offensive lineman Kenny Wiggins said. “It was the way he ran, how he didn’t let one guy tackle him. The way he just kept his feet moving, the vision he saw, the hole and everything.
“It was a whole package play.”
Johnson has shown to be a whole-package running back halfway through his first season with the Lions. The second-round pick from Auburn has seemingly gotten better by the week. He broke Detroit’s 100-yard rusher drought in Week 3 against New England. Last week, he gained 158 yards on 19 carries -- 8.32 yards per carry against Miami -- in the Lions’ best rushing day since 1997.
He has accomplished this in a variety of ways, as his style is a tough one to describe. Johnson runs between the tackles like a bigger back despite being 5-foot-11, 206 pounds. He reaches the outside like a shiftier runner, at least once a game breaking out an explosive run that helps dictate Detroit’s plan. He has shown decisiveness when he sees the hole and patience for it to open up when it doesn’t.
“You could tell early on, he’s got great vision,” offensive lineman Joe Dahl said. “It’s just exciting to have somebody behind you when you’re in the run game that can make plays like that. It was awesome to see in training camp, and it’s awesome to see unfold in the season like this.”
It has been consistent, too. Johnson is ninth in the league in rushing yards (444) and second in yards per attempt (6.43). Of his 69 carries, only three have resulted in negative yardage. Some of that has to do with his running style, where he consciously learned to fall forward at the end of a run following a hit he took his sophomore year of college.
In doing so, he learned it was the safest way -- in his opinion -- to be tackled, and it also meant he was at least getting perhaps an extra yard or two because of his frame.
The offensive line has helped as well, as Johnson leads the NFL in yards before first contact per rush (4.57) and is third in total yards before first contact (315). And the line never knows when a big run is coming since sometimes he’ll take very little and turn it into something much larger.
This how he always has been, from high school at Madison Academy (Alabama) to the pros now. The talent level might be different, but his ability remains the same.
“You never knew what he was going to do, I mean, my goodness,” Madison Academy offensive line coach Parks Gettys said. “You knew that whenever he touched the ball, he could break it and go all the way. I just remember several, several plays where you’d have guys try to go low on him and he’d jump over them.
“He was amazing.”
Sure, that’s a high school description, when often he was the best player on the field. But it was the same at Auburn, where he saw NFL-caliber defenders by the week in the SEC and became the conference’s offensive player of the year.
This stood out the most in last year’s Iron Bowl against Alabama, when Johnson had 30 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown, threw a 3-yard touchdown pass and caught three passes for 21 yards in a 26-14 upset win. Lions who caught that game knew the potential then -- even wondering now why he wasn’t considered an obvious top-five running back in this year’s draft.
“It was damn near every play they couldn’t stop him,” cornerback Teez Tabor said, remembering watching the Bama-Auburn game. “He was in the Wildcat one time, ran this way, cut all the way back, hit the stiff-arm and up the sideline. He was killing it.”
If that sequence sounds familiar this year, it’s because he has done it. It was similar to that 57-yard run that introduced him to his teammates and to the league in general.
“Obviously you bust a long run, you take notice,” tight end Levine Toilolo said. “But I think that one, made a good read, broke some tackles and, I think, he kind of took the run a little bit longer than you would have initially thought looking at the play.
“He even spun off some guys and kept rolling.”
If the Lions needed more evidence, it came Sunday against the Dolphins. He had a 24-yard run off the left side to start the game. His first rush of the second quarter was a perfectly blocked 71-yarder -- one that left Wiggins watching toward the end, hoping he would score so he wouldn’t have to run down the field.
But the play that stood out then showed even more the type of back Detroit now has -- a tough, physical bruiser in more of a speedster body. On a 15-yard screen pass from Matthew Stafford, Johnson stiff-armed and threw down Miami defender Kiko Alonso.
“Instant juice, everybody got hyped up,” Wiggins said. “Energy is contagious, I’ve always said that, and if one person brings energy, it rubs off on everybody else.”
Much of this season, that has been Johnson -- the piece of Detroit’s run game that has been missing for years and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere for a while.