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Newcomer Smith-Willis gives Ceres High's offense a boost
Junior running back settling into key role for Bulldogs
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Johnni Smith-Willis helped the Bulldogs end a seven-game losing streak dating back to last season this past week. Smith-Willis ran for a career-high 268 yards and three touchdowns as Ceres High posted a 35-24 victory over host Johansen on Friday. Johnni turned heads prior to the start of the 2014 campaign at the Downey full-contact camp and the Bulldogs' five-team scrimmage. - photo by DALE BUTLER/The Courier

Ceres High School’s football program hasn’t had a standout running back in over a decade.

Varsity newcomer Johnni Smith-Willis rushed for a career-high 268 yards and three touchdowns while leading the Bulldogs past the Johansen Vikings, 35-24, in non-conference play Friday night in Modesto.

Smith-Willis averaged 16.8 yards per attempt as Ceres High snapped a seven-game losing streak dating back to last season.

“There’s some pressure,” Johnni said. “It motivates me to get better. I’m a team player.”

“We haven’t had that type of a running game since Brandon Crawford,” head coach Bret Durossette said. “Johnni is a great athlete. He’s going to do some great things for us if he stays healthy.”

Ceres High will have a more balanced offense this year thanks in large part to Smith-Willis’ presence.

Bulldog senior quarterback Brad Bussard passed for 2,853 yards and 25 touchdowns with 16 interceptions in 2013.

Brent Bussard was the Bulldogs’ leading rusher last year. He gained 394 yards and scored three TDs on 109 carries.

“He (Smith-Willis) brings a new aspect to our offense we haven’t had in a lot of years,” Brad Bussard said. “He’s just an athletic, strong running back. He proved himself at the Downey camp. We didn’t throw the ball as much on purpose. We tested him. He really stepped up. He’s going to open the passing game for us.”

Can Johnni duplicate Brandon Crawford’s success?

Crawford rushed for 954 yards and a school-record 16 touchdowns during his senior year with Ceres High in 2003.

A first-team all-league selection, Brandon also caught 15 passes for 205 yards.

Crawford led the Bulldogs to a 7-4 overall record and runner-up finish in the Central California Conference standings. Ceres High also secured a Sac-Joaquin Section playoff berth, its first in eight years.

The Bulldogs last participated in the postseason in 2004.

“I’m really excited for the opportunity,” Johnni said. “I’m still learning the plays. That’s what practice is for.”

Smith-Willis turned heads while totaling six touchdowns at the Downey full-contact camp this summer.

Johnni had four touchdowns during the Bulldogs’ five-team scrimmage on Aug. 23.

Smith-Willis rushed for 58 yards and scored one TD on 11 carries, and returned a kickoff 82 yards for a score during the JV Bulldogs’ 34-21 upset of crosstown-rival Central Valley last year.

“Our number one goal is to go to the playoffs,” Johnni said. “We’re going to try our hardest. I’m looking forward to a great season.”

Ceres High will open Western Athletic Conference play this Friday against visiting Los Banos (2-2). The contest will get underway at 7 p.m.