Speedy rookie RB Ty Johnson is Detroit Lions' version of 'muscle car'

Dave Birkett
Detroit Free Press
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HOUSTON — He's a car guy, so it's fitting he ended up in Detroit. And watching him run, you get a sense of what kind of vehicle he likes to let loose with on the open road.

Ty Johnson has been one of the pleasant surprises of the first three weeks of Lions training camp.

He had carries of 13 and 17 yards in the Lions' preseason-opening loss to the New England Patriots last week, though the 17-yard gain was negated by a holding penalty, and he's expected to play big minutes again Saturday when the Lions face the Houston Texans at NRG Stadium.

Lions running back Ty Johnson is tackled by Patriots defensive back Joejuan Williams during the second half of the Lions' 31-3 preseason loss to the Patriots on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019, at Ford Field.

"Coach Leon always says the game’s about speed," Johnson said of Lions assistant Leon Washington. "And I got a lot of speed, he says, so I’ve just been trying to, every single chance I get to open up, open up. It’s like having a muscle car going down the highway, you get to open up a little bit."

Johnson knows from personal experience after buying his own muscle car, a supercharged 2019 Dodge Challenger, a few months before April's NFL draft.

He has spent the last few months fiddling around with the car, trying out things he's learned on YouTube.

He added a cold-air intake and a new exhaust — one day he wants to build up a 1969 Camaro SS — and he said he's taken a similar approach to maximizing his football skills.

"You got to come in and work in the weight room. Work in the weight room and take care of the body," Johnson said. "It’s just like the car I mentioned. You got to take care of it. You got to change the oil, you got to change the tires and what not. ... It's just one of those things you got to take care of it and it pays off when you take care of your things cause it lasts longer."

Lions running back Ty Johnson goes through drills during practice during training camp on Saturday, July 27, 2019, in Allen Park.

The Lions are hoping Johnson has plenty of staying power as a running back, and early indications are they might have found a steal in the sixth round of the draft.

Johnson totaled more than 4,000 all-purpose yards in four seasons at Maryland, but was used relatively sparingly during his senior season when he had just 66 carries for 506 yards and a measly six receptions.

In Detroit, Johnson has proven to be a better-than-expected pass catcher, and his speed — he wowed scouts with a sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash at his Maryland pro day — has been impossible to miss in games and practice.

"On (college) tape, you see some of the physical attributes that you really like that I think that have shown up on the field so far, so that’s always a positive to see," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "There’s a difference between the level of play and competition between college and the NFL. You always try to project that at our level, and I think that’s part of it has shown up on the field that we're pretty pleased with."

Johnson has always been one of the fastest players on the field, dating back to when he started playing football as a 6-year-old.

Johnson said his mother, Tracy, helped him learn his playbooks back then by using pennies to create an offensive formation and having him move them around the field.

"She labeled them guard, tackle, center, running back, quarterback," Johnson said. "And then we’d have the playbook and I had to study and show where everyone went."

Johnson followed his mother's lead in college, too, heading her advice to "make the most of each carry." He averaged 7.7 yards per attempt last season and better than 9 yards per rush during his 110-carry, 1,004-yard sophomore campaign.

He said he didn't get more work because of the Terrapins' time-share backfield and hurry-up offense.

"We rotated a lot of backs," Johnson said. "It was about five to six backs every game we rotated because we were in hurry-up offense the whole time, so it was just going from there, being fresh and everything."

Detroit Lions quarterback Tom Savage hands off to Ty Johnson during training camp Sunday, August 4, 2019 in Allen Park.

The Lions won't use as many backs on Sundays this fall, but Johnson could similarly find himself as a role player if all goes well.

Kerryon Johnson is the starter and should get the bulk of the workload, with veteran C.J. Anderson as his primary backup. Zach Zenner and fullback Nick Bawden also will see time in the backfield, but Johnson's speed is a unique weapon on a team that's determined to run the football.

"I’m a rookie, I’m trying to contribute any way I can," Johnson said. "Whether it’s special teams, returning, being split out, running the ball, blocking, whatever it is, I’m going to learn how to do it and I’m going to be really effective doing it."

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Read more on the Detroit Lions and sign up for our Lions newsletter.

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