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All-time UNC Football Top 25 Countdown: No. 10 Leon Johnson

Johnson is top-five all-time in both touchdowns and yards from scrimmage in the ACC.

Leon Johnson

This summer, Tar Heel Blog will profile the top 25 players in the history of the North Carolina football program. The rankings were determined by votes from readers and staff.

In the days of Bo Jackson in the early 1990s, the best athletes didn’t limit themselves to one sport. At Freedom High School in Morganton, nestled in the mountains of western North Carolina, Leon Johnson played four sports--track, basketball, baseball, and football—before committing to UNC, where he focused on football.

Johnson is UNC’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns (43) and yards from scrimmage (4,981), and was the focal point of the rushing attack as coach Mack Brown led the Heels to national relevance during the first half of the 1990s.

Career at UNC

Leon Johnson Career Statistics

Year Plays from scrimmage Yards from scrimmage Average TD
Year Plays from scrimmage Yards from scrimmage Average TD
1993 208 1245 6 16
1994 180 1071 6 9
1995 279 1371 4.9 12
1996 281 1294 4.6 10
Career 948 4981 5.3 47

Leon Johnson was a threat to score any time he touched the ball. During his four years at UNC, he scored one passing touchdown, forty-three rushing touchdowns, four receiving touchdowns, two punt return touchdowns, and one kick return touchdown. Discounting the passing touchdown, multiply those fifty touchdowns by six and Johnson was responsible for 300 points at UNC—far and away the school record for a non-kicker.

Honors and Awards

Johnson had a tremendous season as a freshman, earning ACC Rookie of the Year honors as he burst onto the scene. He remained consistent during his time at Carolina, culminating in being named a co-captain during his senior season. In 2010, Johnson was elected into the Burke County Sports Hall of Fame.

Top Games at UNC

As stated above, Johnson burst onto the scene from game one, which was the then-annual Pigskin Classic season-opener, played against USC in 1993. Played in Anaheim, the Heels ran over the Trojans, winning 31-9 and amassing 291 rushing yards total. The Trojans had no counter to the Heels’ option run offense, and Leon Johnson led the team with 94 yards and a touchdown--the first of many.

His best game, perhaps, was one discussed earlier in this countdown: the 1995 Carquest Bowl against Arkansas. Johnson was rightfully named MVP of that game, running for 195 yards on 29 carries (a stunning average of over 6.7 yards per carry) and the touchdown that gave the Heels a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

After UNC

Johnson was drafted in the fourth round with the 104th overall pick by the New York Jets. He was primarily used as a return specialist in his rookie season, taking both a kick return and a punt return to the house, as well as two old-fashioned rushing touchdowns to boot. He was the punt returner on the NFL’s All-Rookie team in 1997, and also was awarded the AFC Special Teams Player of the week for Week 13, during which he notched his 66-yard punt return TD. He led the entire NFL in punt return yards with 619, which is the 15th-highest figure in the NFL’s history.

His 1998 season was a bit less prolific from a returning standpoint, but he did have his best season from scrimmage, scoring two rushing touchdowns again and hauling in two receiving touchdowns, including an 82-yard scamper that remains the longest of his career. His way up the depth chart was blocked by a new addition, however: Curtis Johnson. In this archived New York Times article from the 1998 season, Jets coach Bill Parcells indicates that regardless of the flashes of brilliance Johnson may have shown, he was set in his role as a special teams player.

Johnson was even passed over in his role as a return man by Dedric Ward during the 1999 and 2000 seasons, and he left the Jets in free agency to sign with the Chicago Bears for the 2001 season. There, Johnson experienced a brief revival, recording a career best in rushing touchdowns with four on only twenty total carries, as well as returning to his old specialty of, well, returning. The 2002 season brought more playing time but less success: although he got a career high with 103 rushing attempts, he only scored one touchdown. He spent the 2003 season playing sparingly with the San Diego Chargers and then retired. Despite being frozen out for two seasons in New York, Johnson is 62nd on the NFL’s all-time punt return yardage list with 1,617.

Nowadays, Johnson is coaching football in Oklahoma. He and his wife, Vanessa, have a son named Jaylen.