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D’Ernest Johnson hopes to showcase versatility at East-West Shrine Game

Former USF tailback D'Ernest Johnson hopes to showcase his running, receiving and returning skills at Saturday's East-West Shrine Game
Former USF tailback D'Ernest Johnson signs photographs following Monday's East-West Shrine Game practice at Shorecrest Prep. (JOEY KNIGHT | Times)
Former USF tailback D'Ernest Johnson signs photographs following Monday's East-West Shrine Game practice at Shorecrest Prep. (JOEY KNIGHT | Times)
Published Jan. 16, 2018|Updated Jan. 16, 2018

On a cloudless, brisk St. Petersburg afternoon, D'Ernest Johnson lined up deep in the backfield, darted to the right flat and snagged a short Riley Ferguson pass.

Within a matter of minutes, he snagged another. Suddenly, it was 2016 all over again for USF's versatile veteran. Halfback dive? This was halfback diversity.

"It felt good just being able to get the ball out of the backfield once again," Johnson said moments after the workout, his first full-squad practice for Saturday afternoon's East-West Shrine Game. "It felt pretty good, just going out there and showcasing my skills."

Johnson's invitation to this 93-year-old all-star event comes on the heels of a senior year in which he showcased little more than his durability and downhill chops.

Though he ran for a career-best 836 yards (on 193 carries) in Sterlin Gilbert's power-based system as a senior, Johnson had only 11 catches. By contrast, he totaled 54 the previous two seasons, including nine touchdown catches, and finished his career with the most receptions (73) by a USF running back.

"Most definitely I wish I would've (seen more passes), but it was a different system coming in," said Johnson, one of four Bulls players on the East squad. "So I had to adjust to that, do what's best for the team."

The East coaching staff, led by Bengals tight ends coach Jonathan Hayes, evidently has familiarized itself with Johnson's skill set. On Monday, an audience rife with NFL and CFL scouts and agents saw him brandish a bit of it.

On a day in which players were dressed in shells (helmets, shorts, shoulder pads), Johnson also took some handoffs Monday in team work, prompting Hayes to yell "Nice cut!" following one of his line-of-scrimmage jukes.

Johnson also could field kickoffs in Saturday's game at Tropicana Field, having totaled nearly 1,200 return yards during his USF career. That game will be followed by USF's pro day (date not yet determined) and perhaps some private workouts.

Guiding him through these series of on-field interviews will be his Atlanta-based agent, Damarius Bilbo.

Fittingly, Bilbo played quarterback and receiver at Georgia Tech.

"Just a lot of guys saying that they're interested in me," Johnson said when asked about the feedback he has received so far. "And they like my versatility and stuff like that."

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