IMMOKALEE - Finally, D'Ernest Johnson can be the man in Immokalee.
The Indians running back has been one of the best in Southwest Florida the past two seasons, yet he's been overshadowed by perhaps the most talented recruiting class ever at Immokalee High School.
With the graduation of five Division I signees, Johnson is primed to take over the team his season year. As one of two returning skill players for Immokalee's high-scoring offense, last year's 1,000-yard rusher should get plenty of opportunities to shine.
Judging from Friday's spring game, Johnson should start his senior season where he left off as a junior. Johnson ran for 228 yards combined in two-quarter victories over Cape Coral, 14-7, and East Lee, 34-8. East Lee also downed the Seahawks 12-7.
"We're going to see a lot of of that in the fall," Johnson said. "(Coaches) are going to put it on me. I'm looking forward to that. I've been waiting for this for three years."
Following his emergence as a sophomore, Johnson broke out last season. He led Immokalee, which lost in the Class 5A state championship game, with 1,111 yards and 14 touchdowns. And he performed his best when the pressure was on.
Johnson ran for 779 yards in the final eight games of 2012, including five 100-yard games. He did it as two of Immokalee's biggest stars, Cincinnati recruit Tshumbi Johnson and West Virginia commit Jacky Marcellus, were out with injuries.
Johnson will have to shoulder the load again come the fall. Immokalee lost most its offensive production, and leading receiver J.C. Jackson (committed to Florida State) will spend half his time at defensive back.
Immokalee handed its offense to Johnson in the second game against East Lee. After going for 72 yards on eight carries against Cape in the first of three one-half matchups, Johnson ran 18 times for 156 yards against East Lee.
Cape Coral and East Lee faced each other for a half in the jamboree-style spring game.
"Last year we had a lot of skill players," Johnson said. "Now, I'm the heart of the team. I'm ready to carry us on my back and try to win games."
While Immokalee featured an aerial assault offense for three years under quarterback Tshumbi Johnson, D'Ernest's older brother, the Indians were almost perfectly-balanced last season. Immokalee passed for 2,481 yards and ran for 2,479 yards.
Next season new coach Rich Dombroski said fans can expect the Indians to get back to the power running game that was successful in the late 1990's and early 2000's under John Webber.
"We're going to be a ground-and-pound team. We're going to run the ball," Dombroski said. "We're still going to be a spread team and we'll throw when we have to."
Dombroski and the Indians expect big things from Johnson as a senior. Johnson has increased his rushing total each year since starting as a freshman. He enters his final season with 2,282 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns to go with 502 yards and four scores receiving.
"I want to do what I did last year but be a bigger leader," Johnson said. "I want 2,000 (yards), 15 or more touchdowns. I'll probably have 30 carries a game. They're going to put it on me. I'm just getting ready for it."
If he keeps pace, Johnson will be Immokalee's next big-time Division I recruit. He has scholarship offers from eight Bowl Championship Series conference schools, and coaches from 11 colleges were on the sideline Friday to recruit.
Johnson gave extra attention to the coaches from Louisville, one of the schools to offer him a scholarship. He gave handshakes and embraces to the two Cardinals coaches after the game.
Focusing on the run would be a change for a Dombroski team. In five years at Estero, the Wildcats had more passing yards than rushing yards every year.
The margin was close last season, but in Dombroski's first four seasons Estero had twice as many yards in the air. The Wildcats threw for 2,000 yards or more every year under Dombroski.
"We're going to do what we can do," Dombroski said. "Right now, I know we can run it. Against Cape, we could run through the tackles. You take what they can give you."