Running back Aaronyuoun Johnson was in Maurice Gowdy’s office one day and noticed something that sparked an instant connection between the two.
“I saw a picture on his desk of a horse he had and asked him what kind of horse it was,” Johnson recalled. “I’ve never had a coach who rode horses before.”
Heading into the season, Gowdy, Northeast Lauderdale’s head football coach, said he would need some younger players to step up this fall, as the team doesn’t have many seniors. Johnson is one of those underclassmen who is showing some early success, as the sophomore is coming off a game against Southeast Lauderdale in which he rushed 24 times for 178 yards.
The two have developed a trust, and that common interest in horses has also given them a unique bond, Gowdy said.
“Me and him can be sitting down and talking football, but before the conversation ends, we’ll be talking horses,” Gowdy said. “He loves walking horses and racing horses, and there’s a peace of mind that comes with being a country boy.”
When it comes to football, Gowdy said Johnson has shown a lot of potential both at running back and defensive back.
“He’s still young, but he’s definitely one of the ones we’re going to be relying on this season,” Gowdy said. “We have a few more like (running backs) Tyler Moore, Quon Simpson and JaMichael Jackson, and they’re all just juniors. Aaronyuoun has gotten off to a pretty good start for us, and he’s going to be something special for us as the year progresses, but he has to get stronger and faster just like all of the younger kids do. We expect him to have some success not just offensively but also defensively for us.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnson wasn’t able to work out with the Trojans as an incoming freshman in the summer of 2020, so he was limited to primarily junior varsity playing time last fall. Johnson was able to participate in this year’s summer workouts, which Gowdy said made a big difference coming into the fall.
“Being able to get a full summer in, he’s been able to learn our system,” Gowdy said. “Back in the spring we did 40 times, and he had one of our fastest. I noticed this kid had speed, and that’s something you can’t teach. He’s a tough, hard-nosed, hard-working kid. He’s still maturing as a young man, but he’s a 10th grader, so you expect that.”
Johnson said he also noticed a big difference in his development after being able to participate in summer workouts this year.
“Getting reps with the (varsity) players and watching people go over the plays helped,” Johnson said. “I’m getting better every day.”
As one of the team’s go-to skill guys, Johnson said he does feel pressure, but he overcomes it by focusing on the task at hand.
“I just run the ball,” Johnson said.
He’s good at it, too: Gowdy raved about Johnson’s ability to quickly change directions and outrun opposing defenders mid-play.
“He’s a jitter bug,” Gowdy said. “One person isn’t going to take him down. I went back and looked at film of the Meridian game (from Week 1), and on the first play when he broke off (for 52 yards), he saw a cut and a hole and exploded. That’s the thing about him, he has that Barry Sanders-type thing where when he sees the hole, he’s gone. He has an ability to sense where the hole is going to be before it’s even there. That vision, that’s the thing you want your great backs to have, and he has that. The sky is the limit. That kid can’t do anything but get better.”
One thing Gowdy has been stressing to Johnson is increasing his physical strength, and Johnson said he’s been working hard in the weight room to become an even stronger runner.
“It’s coming along well,” Johnson said. “I’ve been adding more weights to my sets, and I can see my muscles getting bigger.”
For now, Johnson is relying on his ability to read and react the most, and he said once he’s past the trenches, he’s confident in his speed versus anyone else’s on the field.
“When you get in the open field, you’re gone — you take it to the house,” Johnson said. “I feel like no one can catch me when I’m in the open field.”
Northeast Lauderdale (1-2) is scheduled to play Friday at Forest.