Gators face challenge in Arkansas returner Johnson

BY foxsports • October 15, 2009

He gives the Razorbacks a chance to score before the Gators' stifling defense even takes the field.

Johnson has already run one kickoff back for a touchdown this season, and last week against Auburn he broke free for a pair of long returns that helped Arkansas to a decisive victory. With Florida allowing a paltry 6.4 points per game, the Razorbacks could use a big play or two on special teams if they're going to pull off the upset.

"I think that's going to be the key," Gators coach Urban Meyer said. "That guy's a (5-foot-9), 205-pound guy, and guys bounce off him. It's very well blocked, but he's hard to get down. We've spent some extra time on that. That's a big concern."

Johnson was the Razorbacks' second-leading rusher last season, but he carried only 36 times backing up Michael Smith. He found a niche instead on special teams.

"I didn't expect to be a kick returner when I got here," Johnson said. "I was just really a running back."

Johnson averaged 22 yards per kickoff return in 2008, including a 96-yard touchdown that helped Arkansas beat Tulsa. He also rushed for 127 yards in the season finale against LSU while Smith was hurt.

Smith is back this year, and Arkansas added a handful of newcomers to the backfield. Johnson is caught in a numbers game at running back, but nobody on the team can match him as a kick returner. He already has four returns of at least 50 yards this year and leads the Southeastern Conference with a 34-yard average per return.

Johnson ran the season's opening kickoff back 91 yards for a score against Missouri State, but he had his biggest impact last week. He ran a kick back 50 yards in the first half, then added a 70-yard return at the end of the third quarter after Auburn had scored three quick touchdowns to cut Arkansas' lead to 34-23.

A short while later, the Razorbacks were in the end zone and on their way to a 44-23 victory.

With 1,378 yards on kickoff returns, Johnson is second to Felix Jones on Arkansas' career list. And he's only a sophomore.

"Working hard to get to his speed in the first 15 yards - that's really been the coaching point for him," coach Bobby Petrino said. "He runs a 40 in 4.3. He's extremely fast. Last year, there were times where he cruised the first 15, 20 yards until he saw the hole.

"This year he's getting to his full speed in the first 15 and 20 yards, which is opening up bigger lanes for him."

Johnson also has enough elusiveness and savvy to improvise when a return doesn't go as planned. On his 70-yard return against Auburn, Johnson started toward the left sideline, reversed direction, found an opening up the middle and then eventually cut to the left again.

He said the play was supposed to go to the right.

"I turned around and all my blockers were right there," Johnson said. "I found holes and we made it happen."

It was an impressive game all around for special teams. Arkansas scored two touchdowns in 47 seconds while building a big lead in the first half. The reason the Hogs got the ball back so quickly was because they recovered a fumble on an Auburn kickoff return.

The Razorbacks will be big underdogs this weekend, but their offense has scored 40 points four times this season. When Johnson gives them good field position, they're that much more dangerous.

"The special teams is going great," quarterback Ryan Mallett said. "With them being able to get us some momentum on drives and things like that, it really helps out."


share story