NFL News of April 23, 2003

A year ago at this time, there were questions about Larry Johnson.

Would he be able to handle being Penn State’s featured tailback? Would his body hold up? Could he produce consistently in the Big Ten? Now, there are still questions about Johnson, but their tone has changed. Instead of asking where he will fit into Penn State’s backfield, these days, people ask where he will fit in the first round of the NFL draft. Instead of wondering if he can carry the load against Wisconsin and Michigan, the questions’ focuses are Tampa Bay or the Cowboys.

Such is the life of an instant star like Larry Johnson, who went from question mark to 2,000-yard rusher and Heisman finalist in the span of four months.

On Saturday at Madison Square Garden, Johnson will almost assuredly be one of the top 32 picks, making him the first Nittany Lion running back taken in the first round since Curtis Enis went No. 5 overall to the Chicago Bears in 1998.

The 2003 class of running backs is a poor one. With the injury to Miami’s Willis McGahee, undoubtedly the cream of this year’s crop, Johnson has assumed the throne at the top of the tailback board.

There is plenty of pre-draft speculation surrounding Johnson. Most experts place him in the latter stages of the first round, between picks 20 and 30. Two teams that are said to have heavy interest in Johnson are the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Tennessee Titans.

Each team is looking to replace a bruising yet aging back in Jerome Bettis and Eddie George. Johnson, with a 228-pound frame and ugly demeanor, would fit in well at both spots. The Steelers hold the 27th selection while the Titans own 28.

— Chris Rajotte,  The America’s Intelligence Wire “New questions arise over draft status for Penn State’s Johnson”

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