SURREY, B.C. — Jeremiah Johnson has been waiting a long time to say hello to some old friends.
The running back had a standout 2015 with the Ottawa Redblacks, rushing for 448 yards and a CFL-high nine touchdowns in just 10 games before a foot injury shelved him for the rest of the regular season.
Johnson battled to get healthy and felt he was good to go in the Grey Cup — he told Ottawa’s coaching staff as much — but was instead left off the roster and could only watch as the Edmonton Eskimos beat the Redblacks 26-20.
The Los Angeles native signed with the B.C. Lions the following winter and split time in the backfield in 2016. However, he didn’t get the chance to suit up for either meeting with Ottawa.
Johnson will finally get a chance against his old team Saturday afternoon when the Lions take on the Redblacks in the nation’s capital.
“I wanted to play in both those games last year, but it was circumstance and the rotation,” he said with a big grin after practice this week. “At that point you’ve just got to shut your mouth and hold on for another time.”
While the colourful 30-year-old insisted he’s moved on after what was a tumultuous parting of ways in Ottawa, there’s still some pain under the surface.
“It does hurt,” said Johnson. “It does bring a couple emotions back, but they made their decision.”
Johnson grabbed the reins towards the end of last season for the Lions, running for 809 yards and seven touchdowns in 11 games, and is now the club’s undisputed No. 1 back — a first in his career.
“He’s always amped up to play,” said B.C. quarterback Jonathon Jennings. “When you’re playing a former team where things didn’t go your way, it gives you that much more motivation.”
Johnson sits third in the CFL with 487 yards rushing and is tied for second with five TDs this season, but has struggled during a two-game losing streak that has seen the Lions (5-4) slip to fourth in the West Division.
He had a 50-yard run against the Saskatchewan Roughriders in a 41-9 defeat on Aug. 13, but added just four carries for nine yards the rest of the game.
The University of Oregon product was then held to 11 yards on five carries in last Friday’s 21-17 setback to the Calgary Stampeders, with 39 of B.C.’s 56 total rushing yards coming from Jennings.
The Lions want to re-establish their ground attack against the Redblacks in hopes of easing the pressure on their third-year quarterback, who has averaged less than 220 yards passing with a combined two touchdowns and six interceptions since coming off a shoulder injury against the Riders.
“Everyone knows the run game complements the pass,” said Johnson. “You get a healthy dose of those two and the defence doesn’t know what to think.
“We just want to confuse the other side. We want them to think one thing and do the other.”
The Lions led the league in rushing in 2016 with 2,082 yards and 23 TDs, but despite topping the stats page so far this year with 868 yards and 13 TDs, they’re averaging nearly 20 fewer yards per game (115.7 to 96.4).
The loss of star receiver Bryan Burnham, who looks set to return from a toe problem that kept him out the last two weeks, and some suspect offensive line play that has seen B.C. give up a league-high 24 sacks hasn’t helped as opposing defences crowd the line of scrimmage.
But the Lions know that getting positive yards on the ground, especially on first down, will be crucial against Ottawa (2-6-1) ahead of B.C.’s first bye week of the season.
“We had a really good running team last year and did a lot of good things with that,” said Jennings. “It changes the dynamic of the game. It takes the pressure off of me.
“It also allows the receivers to get open when the defenders have to come up and stop the run.”
And while his main focus is helping to get the Lions back on track — B.C. was 7-1 against the East last year and is already 3-0 this season — Johnson also wants to show the Redblacks they made a mistake in letting him walk.
“It is what it is,” he said. “They got what they wanted and now I’m here in a better situation.
“I’m most definitely excited to get after those guys.”