What a night it was for D’Ernest Johnson, the former AAF superstar running back for the Orlando Apollos. To fully appreciate what happened Thursday night, we need to back track a bit.
Johnson was an undrafted running back coming out of USF, and was simply looking for a chance to prove himself on a professional level. When he heard about the Alliance of American Football starting up in 2019, he reached out to every single team, hoping for an opportunity.
My favorite story about D’Ernest.
He DM’d every AAF team in 2018 asking for a tryout. Made the Orlando team. Then popped off.
Kid has worked his ass off. He’s earned this.
(Of course I saved the screenshot.) pic.twitter.com/015PmctLcc
— Courtney Kramer (@CourtKramer39) October 22, 2021
After securing a tryout with the Orlando Apollos, he was signed to the team – and ended up being an all star in the league, putting up almost 600 yards through eight games before the season ended abruptly.
Apollo's most rushing stats from #ORLvsMEM:
• D’Ernest Johnson – 13 carries, 79 yards, one touchdown
• De’Veon Smith – eight carries, 52 yards@MichaelWaddell_ @aafAPOLLOS #aaf #orlvsmem #memvsorl #takeaim #jointhealliance pic.twitter.com/MJLPVzKnf5
— Apollo News (@NewsApollos) February 24, 2019
After the AAF shut down, Johnson was left without a job. However, he was picked up by the Cleveland Browns in 2019, and has been with the team since, seeing occasional playing time. But, when you consider the fact that the Browns have Kareem Hunt and Nick Chubb, it is difficult for Johnson to get on the field consistently.
That all changed this past week, as neither Chubb or Hunt were available to play, giving Johnson a chance to start – and he certainly took advantage of it.
Right off the bat, Johnson got to work, and scored the opening touchdown putting the Browns up 7-0.
A+ effort from D'Ernest Johnson! 😤
Cleveland strikes quickly.
— Sunday Night Football on NBC (@SNFonNBC) October 22, 2021
Time and time again, D’Ernest put defenders on the ground, showcasing his impressive combination of size, speed, and savvy abilities. On a clutch 3rd and 7, Johnson burst through the Broncos defense to pick up the first down, ending the game as the Browns went on to win 17-14.
What a night for D’Ernest Johnson, the former XFL player and fisherman BALLED OUT last night.
— Gridiron (@Gridiron) October 22, 2021
Johnson finished the night with 146 yards on the ground, a touchdown, and 22 yards receiving. He wasn’t limited to just running though, as he made some solid blocks and helped protect Case Keenum throughout the game.
Seeing Johnson ball out in a prime time showdown just goes to show that spring football has mattered, matters now, and will continue to matter in the future. All Johnson needed was one shot to display his athleticism, and the AAF provided him with that platform.
Jai Nokes, a credentialed reporter for the XFL in 2020, makes a great point about how NFL scouts should look deeper into these spring football platforms moving forward:
D’Ernest Johnson (product of the AAF) is another reason why NFL scouts should expand their horizons.
Further confirms, that not all great talent is noticed in college but can be noticed in Alt Leagues.
The new @XFL2023 will provide the same opportunity.
— Jai Nokes (@CallMeNokes) October 22, 2021
Some may think that Johnson’s performance was a ‘fluke’, which quite simply is not an accurate take. He is not the only spring league alumni to break out in the NFL – just look at Taylor Heinicke, PJ Walker, and Donald Parham for example.
With the XFL returning in 2023, and the USFL resurrecting in 2022, one can expect many similar stories to be written in the coming years.
Who are some spring football stars you’d like to see in the NFL? How impressed were you with Johnson’s Thursday night performance? Let us know down in the comments below, or join the conversation on Discord!