ORLANDO — A year ago, the Miami Norland Vikings sat dejected across the field of the Citrus Bowl, having fallen victim to Tampa Jefferson in a state title tilt. The pain was evident in the eyes that day – the game was even stopped with three seconds left after a fight between members of both squads forced officials to call the contest early. It was clear on that afternoon that Norland had the talent, and now the added resolve to finish the job in 2011.
On Friday, Norland (15-0) avenged that defeat in the same venue, rolling over Crawfordville Wakulla (12-3) 38-0 to claim the FHSAA Class 5A championship.
Vikings coach Daryle Heidelburg and his squad used a simple formula to cap off an undefeated season: a suffocating defense mixed with a lethal doses of senior running back Duke Johnson to sap the life out of an upstart Wakulla squad.
Johnson wasn’t able to match his incredible 375-yard showing against Palemtto in a state semi-final from a week ago, but he was no less incredible. The Miami verbal commitment racked up 266 all-purpose yards and accounted for five touchdowns in a masterful performance to close out his high school career.
“He wanted to leave on a positive mark,” Heidelburg said of Johnson. “I told him before the game, that they’re going to be following you (Wakulla routinely used a spy or two in an effort to limit Johnson on offense). We were going to try to get him the ball in other ways, and it worked out for us.”
A fumble from Johnson – an unusual happenstance for the All-American back – ended Norland’s first drive of the day. Wakulla, however, was unable to capitalize on the favorable field position (as would prove to be the case for the remainder of the game). After a pair of short touchdown runs allowed the Vikings to jump out to an early lead. But it was a 69-yard free kick return following a safety by the Norland defense early in the second quarter that broke open the game for the eventual state champs.
“That was the big momentum shift that we needed,” Johnson said. “We couldn’t get it going running [the ball] like we wanted to. So we needed a play from someone, and I got it on the kick return.”
Even though Johnson ‘struggled’ (always a relative term, of course) a bit in the running game against Wakulla, the senior still crossed the 2,000-yard plateau with 130 yards on 21 carries. For the year, Johnson finished with 2,087 yards and 25 touchdowns on 208 carries. It appears the strong note he hoped to close on came to fruition just as he had envisioned.
“Like I’ve said before, Duke is a phenomenal player,” Norland linebacker Keith Brown said. “He told us he was going to put the team on his back, and we followed.”
A sensational 41-yard touchdown by Johnson with 6:12 remaining in regulation brought the scoring to a close. On the play, Johnson showed all the abilities that make him a blue-chip prospect: speed, burst, vision, yards after contact and the ability to be patient and allow his blocks to develop in front of him.
“This is a good way to finish it out. Five touchdowns, a state championship and 2,000 yards – it doesn’t get any better than this,” Johnson said. “The [state title] loss [in 2010] drove us every day, just to keep pushing and not let it end like it did last year.”
Norland outgained Wakulla in total offense by a 381-71 margin on Friday.
Senior linebacker Tamrick Holmes recorded 14 tackles in a losing effort for Wakulla. Junior defensive back Mikal Cromartie (5-10, 170) added eight stops and a pass break-up for the War Eagles as well.
– If teams are still trying to get running back Duke Johnson (5-9, 185) to back off of his Miami commitment, he’s not going to talk about it. “Nah,” he answered before going on to reaffirm that his pledge to the Hurricanes is solid.
“I can’t wait to get there,” he added of Miami.
– Linebacker Keith Brown has committed to Miami and now Illinois during the recruiting process, but with a coaching change in Champaign, Ill., taking place following the season with the firing of former UF coach Ron Zook. Brown has made official visits to Purdue, Rutgers and South Florida in addition to Miami and Illinois. A final decision should be rendered by Brown in the near future.
“I’m ready for it to end now,” he said after Norland’s win on Friday. “I have my mind set on where I want to go, but I’m going to keep it a secret for now.”
Brown is expected to make one of the “college declarations” that take part during the broadcast of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 7 in San Antonio.
– A name to watch for the future: Wakulla offensive lineman Chris Griffin. The 6-foot-5, 270-pound junior, who has started at left tackle for the past two seasons for the War Eagles, camped at Florida over the summer. Griffin noted he enjoyed his time working with Florida offensive line coach Frank Verducci, and will continue to keep an eye on the Gators moving forward.
Justin Wells hosts a weekly recruiting video chat with Andrew Spivey on Tuesday nights from 8:30-9:30 p.m. EST. You can view the show live on the Gator Country TV page. You can also e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org—or follow him on twitter @j_wellsGC.