Johnson Steps In, Carries Weight
Dennis Johnson has been a Razorback for 10 years.
Before his career with the Arkansas Razorbacks, he played for the Arkansas High School Razorbacks and North Heights Junior High Razorbacks in Texarkana, Ark.
When former UA assistant coach and current Southern Arkansas University head coach Bill Keopple was hired as the Arkansas High head coach, Johnson was in eighth grade.
“I knew right away he had special athletic talents,” Keopple said. “No one wanted to tackle him. He was exceptionally strong and the fastest kid in town.”
Although he was “a little wild” at first, he found out that it was “our way or not play” once he got to North Heights Jr. High, Keopple said.
Keopple’s first memory of Johnson as an Arkansas High Razorback came in the spring practice before his sophomore season, when he was still only a ninth grader. Arkansas High’s starting safety that year was a senior who was recruited and offered a scholarship by the University of Houston.
“Dennis turned the corner on a sweep and ran him over,” Keopple said. “I knew right then he was ready to be a star player.”
Johnson played immediately at Arkansas High. He rushed for 1,734 yards and 18 touchdowns as a sophomore, 1,500 yards and 16 touchdowns as a junior and 1,529 yards and 20 touchdowns as a senior.
His junior and senior seasons ended with 6A Arkansas State Championships, in which he was named the game’s MVP both times.
“He was the kind of kid you could build a team around,” Keopple said. “Teams didn’t look forward to playing against him in our league.”
The way he performed in big games and his impressive stats earned him many accolades including being named to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette All-Arkansas team as a junior and senior. He was also ranked as the No. 33 all-purpose back in the nation and No. 10 overall prospect in Arkansas by Rivals.com.
“He was a force running the football as well as catching the ball out of the backfield. His ability to return kicks was also remarkable,” Keopple said. “There have not been many running backs in the state of Arkansas that were better than Dennis Johnson in high school.”
After being recruited by Tulsa, Oklahoma State and Louisiana Tech, Johnson decided to remain a Razorback and signed with Arkansas.
As a true freshman, he was named to the Southeastern Conference All-Freshman Team as a kick returner. He broke the school record by gaining 905 yards on 41 returns. Against Tulsa, he scored the game-winning touchdown on a 96-yard kickoff return.
He followed that with another record-breaking season, gaining 1,031 yards on 40 returns. He also broke the school record for career kickoff return yards his sophomore season.
In 2010, Johnson started the year on the Doak Walker Award watch list, but was injured during the second game, leading to a medical redshirt.
Returning from the season-ending injury, he took a larger role in Arkansas’ offense last year, rushing for 670 yards and catching 24 passes for 255 yards. In the return game, he returned 18 kicks for 461 yards. His 126 all-purpose yards per game was second-best in the SEC that season.
This season has been an up-and-down one for Johnson, as it has been for the entire team. In the return game, Johnson is averaging a career-low 21.5 yards per return, but he broke the SEC career record for kickoff return yards against Rutgers.
With star running back Knile Davis returning from missing last season with an injury, Johnson started the season as the second-string running back. Through the first five games he was only averaging 5.4 carries per game.
Davis, however, has struggled, giving him an opportunity to get more carries. Johnson finally had a breakout game last week against Auburn, carrying the ball 17 times for 76 yards and catching four passes for 15 yards.
“Dennis was having a good day and we wanted to continue (giving him the ball),” UA interim head coach John L. Smith said.
Johnson’s toughness and ability to gain yards after contact has impressed the coaches, as well as his teammates.
“He is able to absorb that first blow and fall forward to get two or three yards and get you in a better position,” senior quarterback Tyler Wilson said. “If there’s nothing there, he can will you a couple yards.”
If Davis doesn’t return to his 2010 form, Johnson will most likely be asked to take a majority of the snaps for the rest of the season. He will have to use his senior leadership and pick up the slack, which Keopple believes he is capable of.
“I definitely believe he could lead the team in rushing if given the opportunity. He’s a physically hard-nose runner with the speed it takes to make things happen,” Keopple said. “With Davis not totally back to full speed, Dennis could be the guy to carry the load.”