FARGO — It didn’t take Kobe Johnson long to make a splash at a new role with the North Dakota State football team. His kickoff return for a touchdown last Saturday essentially sunk Youngstown State before the first half was over.
The Bison true freshman, along with Christian Watson, was inserted into the kickoff return team. Johnson returned one 94 yards for a touchdown with 42 seconds remaining in the second quarter that gave the Bison a 42-7 halftime lead.
He was named the Missouri Valley Football Conference Special Teams Player of the Week for his 241 all-purpose yards, which were the fifth-most in NDSU’s Division I history that began in 2004. He returned three kickoffs against the Penguins for 138 yards.
Not bad for a player who was told last Monday that he would be inserted into the kickoff return role.
“It’s a big thing for me because I like returning kicks,” Johnson said, “so when they gave me that chance I took full advantage of it.”
Johnson and Watson replaced Ty Brooks and Marquise Bridges as the deep return men and will most likely remain in that role when the Bison host Western Illinois Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome. NDSU head coach Matt Entz said getting the 5-foot-8 Brooks, a running back with 78 mostly-physical carries, out of the kickoff return team was to help preserve his health.
“I think it was a matter of time and I think sometimes it’s just what happens on Monday through Thursday,” Entz said. “You get a chance to evaluate kids. We do special teams drills, we do them every day and I think it was a time of the year where we needed a change of pace and it was good to take Ty Brooks off that. Imagine 11 guys sprinting down trying to take their best shot at you. It’s not always something you want one of your top running backs having to do so if we can spread that out a little bit, I think that’s a positive.”
Bridges only had two returns with a long of 19 yards. Brooks had a couple returns of note with a long of 79 yards against Illinois State, a play where he was brought down from behind by a Redbird player. Nobody on Youngstown State’s kickoff coverage unit closed the gap on Johnson, a high school state track meet qualifier in Georgia in the 100 and 200 meters.
He had prep personal bests of 10.5 seconds in the 100 meters and 21.5 in the 200.
In contrast, he would have taken second in the 100 and fifth in the 200 with those times in last spring’s Summit League Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
Entz said he knew of Johnson’s kickoff return ability from watching his high school tape. He also didn’t want to give the true freshman too much, too soon.
“It was one of those things we thought about earlier in the year,” Entz said, “but I think because being a freshman you try to spoon-feed him a little bit as the season progresses and not just throw everything at him so he gets overwhelmed by all the things he needs to do on any given Saturday.”
Johnson said he’s been a kick returner since as long as he’s played football. He returned one for a touchdown his senior year at Discovery High School in Lawrenceville, Ga.
“That was the same thing” as Youngstown, he said. “Trusting the guys who were blocking for me and when I saw the hole you have to do it. That’s what I did in high school and that’s what I did on Saturday.”
Plus, with running backs Johnson, Brooks, Adam Cofield and Dimitri Williams seeing the field at a regular basis, it’s another chance to touch the ball.
“We’re rotating backs like crazy so when we’re put on special teams somewhere, we use that as an advantage to get as many reps as we can,” Johnson said.