Cardinals running back David Johnson talks with running backs coach Kirby Wilson during a recent workout.
When the Cardinals work on special teams at the beginning of their various on-field workouts this offseason, David Johnson has some free time.
It’s “strange,” the running back admitted, because he had played special teams all his life and first garnered notice in the NFL in part for his work on kickoff returns. But when you are a star offensive weapon whose absence most of 2017 underscored how important you really were to your team, Johnson’s days in the transition game are long past.
So while his teammates work on punt plays or kickoff coverage, Johnson usually is getting one-on-one lessons with running backs coach Kirby Wilson, as Johnson tries to build on a game that made him an MVP candidate two years ago.
“We always have an exercise in mind in terms of the fundamental we are working on that particular day,” Wilson said of the discussions. “But half of it, we are talking philosophy and we’re talking about his game, and where it is at, and where it needs to be moving forward. It’s a good give-and-take, and I enjoy that time.”
Wilson is Johnson’s third position coach in four years, after Stump Mitchell and Freddie Kitchens. Johnson shrugs that off, noting that he had a different running backs coach each of his years in college at Northern Iowa.
So the special teams period often is Johnson’s getting-to-know moments with Wilson, who has at different points in his career coached running backs Emmitt Smith, Edgerrin James, Le’Veon Bell and Adrian Peterson, among others.
“When Kirby is doing something else (in that down time), I feel like I am lost,” Johnson said.
Johnson’s lost 2017, sunk by a broken wrist in the season opener, left him anxious to get back on the field. The player that gained more than 2,000 total yards rushing and receiving in 2016 with 20 touchdowns has returned to the field and it shows.
“I don’t want to get too excited, but David Johnson looked outstanding,” coach Steve Wilks said after the team’s initial OTA this week.
That’s different from being a finished product, however. Wilson stresses “the little things,” Johnson said, and Wilson talks first not about Johnson’s abilities but his attitude and approach to fundamentals.
“Every running back’s game, it starts with the fundamentals,” Wilson said. “The way they approach them, and the way they apply them to their athletic ability. He can get better because he’s got great character and he’s football-intelligent. He’s going to get better. How much? It depends on him.”
Aside from philosophy, the interaction between Johnson and Wilson is often about pass protection – the same issue in Johnson’s game that he has lamented since his rookie season of 2015. Johnson wants to make sure his technique is second nature so he can improve in game situations.
Wilson also drills into Johnson that he is the veteran of the group as well.
“He’s on me to make sure I know I’m the leader, I’m the one giving 100 percent, I’m setting a good example,” Johnson said.
Even in May, there is plenty for the two to talk about.
“I’m am sure there are things he learned from (Mitchell and Kitchens) that he liked and helped him grow,” Wilson said. “I’m the next one, and my goal is to take him to where he wants to be, which is the best in the National Football League.”