Carolina Panthers

Panthers’ rookie fullback is a bruiser, nicknamed ‘Rockhead’ - for good reason

Panthers rookie fullback Devon Johnson

Carolina Panthers rookie fullback Devon Johnson speaks to the media following Friday afternoon's rookie minicamp practice. Johnson played in college at Marshall.
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Carolina Panthers rookie fullback Devon Johnson speaks to the media following Friday afternoon's rookie minicamp practice. Johnson played in college at Marshall.

Carolina Panthers fullback Devon Johnson didn’t get a chance to show off the inspiration for his “Rockhead” nickname during the two-day rookie minicamp, but the former Marshall back will soon enough.

Consider the Panthers’ linebackers warned.

Johnson rushed for 1,700 yards and 17 touchdowns as a junior at Marshall. But the Virginia native might be best known as a bruising blocker who earned his nickname from Thundering Herd coach Doc Holliday when Johnson was a freshman tight end.

“I made a great, nice block on a kid and the kid was knocked out cold,” Johnson explained. “And the next day he just gave me that nickname and it stuck ever since.”

Johnson, one of seven undrafted free agents signed by the Panthers, didn’t get to deliver any crushing blocks during the rookie practices, in which players wore shorts and helmets.

“We’re out here having fun in helmets. You really can’t see much without (full pads),” said Johnson, 6-foot and 235 pounds. “I’m a big back and big backs, no matter what, it’s hard to tackle them as long as they keep they’re feet moving, run fast and just play hard. That’s my plan.”

Johnson’s plans for training camp -- when the pads come on -- is to jump headlong into the 1-on-1 drills with pass-rushing linebackers.

All backs like to carry the ball in games and practice. Johnson would get excited at Marshall for something called the Herd drill.

“That used to be my favorite (activity), where we just line up and hit each other,” Johnson said. “I always take pride in hitting and try to win.”

This is not to suggest Rockhead is averse to carrying the football.

His 1,767 rushing yards in 2014 ranked sixth nationally, while his 8.6 yards per carry that season were third among Football Bowl Subdivision backs.

Panthers coach Ron Rivera says Johnson can be an effective runner and blocker, much like the team’s starting fullback.

“He’s a hybrid. He’s in the vein of a Michael Tolbert,” Rivera said. “He can play fullback, he can play running back, he can play the (wing) positions for us and could potentially fit very nicely into our offense.

“He gives you that versatility of a guy that can block and protect and at the same time catch the ball out of the backfield and run.”

Shoulder, back and ankle injuries limited Johnson to seven games in 2015 and forced him to skip the combine workouts. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds at Marshall’s pro day, so he’s not a blazer .

But the Panthers haven’t had a backup for Tolbert since Richie Brockel was waived last November. So there could be a spot for Johnson.

“As long as I keep that speed and my power and just keep moving, I can help this organization out a lot,” he said.

Joseph Person: 704-358-5123, @josephperson

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