TEWKSBURY — A year ago, Hunter Johnson was third on the depth chart at running back.
Missing a few games due to an ankle injury, he finished the season with 309 rushing yards and one touchdown.
In the past two playoff games, the Tewksbury High School senior surpassed those numbers, rushing for 136 yards with two touchdowns in round one, and then 175 yards with three touchdowns in last week’s dramatic win over Burlington.
Johnson heads into Saturday’s Division 4 state semifinal game against No. 1 seed Duxbury with over 900 rushing yards on the season.
Johnson, who stands 5-foot-7 and weighs 160 pounds, has been able to reach new heights in his game because of his dedication to the weight room in the offseason. He also only occasionally plays defense so a healthy Johnson can now devote his energy toward running with the football.
“Hunter has had his number called and he’s answered the bell for us, especially with the way those two games have gone,” said Tewksbury head coach Brian Aylward. “He’s had that sense of urgency, especially when it’s time to sacrifice his body and get us a first down. He’s been better at those runs and understanding the situation. That’s where I have seen a lot of improvement from him – just getting a feel for what is happening in terms of can he take that extra step and let things develop on the front side, and when teams are attacking on the back side.
“He doesn’t have that luxury so he has to hit that and get what he can get. That’s a feel skill and he’s developed that. It’s different every game depending on what defenses give him. He’s gotten a lot smarter and how he approaches it. He has certainly been able to make some big plays for us.”
A wrestler who finished third in the state last winter, Johnson plays with a lot of intensity, more so this year.
“It’s the mentality of if we don’t win this game that it’s going to be end (of the playoffs) for everybody. It’s just about going all out,” he said. “I have been doing it since I was in the second grade. If I’m going out, I want to go out with a bang. I’ve just been going into every game thinking it’s going to be my last. Football has been a big part of my life (so once it’s done) it’s definitely going to be a tough one to swallow. It’s bound to end and I’ve known that through the years, so I just want to make the most out of it as I can.”
The other aspect of his success is getting a breather. In years past he played a lot of linebacker, but this year Aylward and his staff have used him in an utility role on defense, depending on how much he plays on offense. Last week he didn’t play any defense.
“He knew that he needed to be a focal point of our running game,” said Aylward. “He was willing to take a lot of that on but I think we’re a little bit balanced with some other guys being able to carry the ball, which I think has made it better for him. He’s had great opportunities and he’s the best of his opportunities.
“He’s quick and he’s tough and he’s gotten a lot better getting yards after contact. He’s not the biggest guy but he’s strong. He has worked his tail off in the weight room and that has certainly paid off to help him be more durable and to take on that workload.”
This Saturday, Johnson’s name will certainly be called upon a lot as the Redmen will look to upset the Green Dragons.
“I know that they are strong and have big kids. They tend to be in this game very often, so it’ll be a tough game like usual,” said Johnson. “You have to think of it like the Super Bowl every game because if you don’t make it, you’re out of the tournament and you’re done. I feel like we’ve finally hit a point where we’re all playing together so I’m feeling confident.”