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KC's Larry Johnson finally getting first start

It's been a long and often painful trek for Larry Johnson, Kansas City's controversial second-year running back.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) _ It's been a long and often painful trek for Larry Johnson, Kansas City's controversial second-year running back.

But here he is, ready to make his first NFL start Sunday against the Denver Broncos. It's a promotion no one can say he hasn't earned.

Coming off the bench the past two games, Johnson had two 100-yard rushing outings. His touchdowns runs of 46 and 41 yards against Tennessee on Monday night marked the first time in Chiefs history a back scored on two runs of 40 yards or more in one game.

I don't think starting has really hit me yet until I actually get there and be the first one out there,'' Johnson said Thursday.I don't think it's going to hit me until game time.''

Johnson's run-ins with coach Dick Vermeil are well known. Earlier this year Vermeil said it was time for Johnson to ``take the diapers off,'' then later apologized. Another time, Johnson lashed out at Vermeil, saying the coach didn't even want to draft him.

It was probably true _ Vermeil had said he wanted to go for defensive help.

But with two 100-yard games in the bank and Johnson's first start coming up, most of the problems seem to be in the past.

He's got a smile on his face. He's getting the repetitions in practice and he's working hard,'' Vermeil said Thursday.He's having fun. He feels good about himself. It's a great mood swing. It was going to happen sooner or later. He had to struggle going through the process and now maybe it's worthwhile.''

Johnson did not even suit up for the first several games, working third team behind Priest Holmes and Derrick Blaylock. But Holmes went out with a season-ending knee injury Nov. 7, and Johnson began getting more time as Blaylock got banged up.

Johnson's 100-yard games came against bad defenses, Oakland and Tennessee. His start Sunday against Denver will match him with a quality NFL defense.

He's going to have to make people miss,'' Vermeil said.He's going to have to run over some people. Priest Holmes made guys miss on the line of scrimmage in the Denver game. When you play Denver, you've got to make people miss.''

Johnson is giving great credit to his line, which Holmes has called the best in the NFL.

Those offensive line guys are great,'' he said.And those receivers did an excellent job keeping those extra (defensive backs) off of me. All I had to do was make one guy miss. Talent alone can't get you that far into the secondary unless you have guys in front of you who are willing to block for you.''

One obvious improvement has been in Johnson's pass-blocking. Quarterback Trent Green agreed he's much more confident in the outspoken Penn State product.

It's not just me, it's everybody,'' Green said.The way he's hitting the holes, the way he's setting his blocks. The linemen feel better about him.''

Green said he has noticed Johnson's attitude has improved.

He's maintained the right demeanor,'' he said.He's carried himself well these last couple of weeks instead of all the criticism he was taking earlier in the year and last season. He's just kind of going about his business and played hard and done a good job. Hopefully that continues.''

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