Johnson's Eyes Wide Open

FAYETTEVILLE -- He couldn't keep his eyes open in the meeting room, losing his battle against an unstoppable force.

Robert Johnson tried to stay awake in his first preseason camp. But the seemingly endless dose of Xs and Os soon had the freshman catching some Zs.

"I'd just nod off and be in another world," Johnson admitted. "(Quarterbacks coach Roy Wittke would) say, 'Robert, what would you do on this play?' I'd say something like, 'I'd throw the ball to the tight end.' I'd just wake up and say something.

"But when I'd look up it was one of our run plays."

Two years later, Wittke teased the Waco, Texas, native about his nap time in preseason meetings. Johnson laughed it off, blaming the episodes on youth and inexperience. The older, wiser sophomore said he won't have trouble keeping his eyes wide open when Arkansas calls on him to lead the Hogs in the season opener against Missouri State in Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Saturday night.

Johnson will make his first career start against the Bears, stepping into the enormous shadow left by former quarterback Matt Jones' brilliant career.

For Arkansas fans, there's uncertainty surrounding Johnson and the Razorbacks in the post-Jones era. But the 6-foot-2, 212-pound Johnson is confident and primed to prove he did much more than sleep through his first two years on campus.

"Matt is a heck of an athlete," Johnson said. "It's going to be hard to follow someone like that. But I'm just going to go out there and have fun and do what I know I can do, play within myself and play within the team. I'm not going to worry about, 'Matt did this. I need to do that.' I can only worry about what I can do."

Confidence Rising
That's the message coaches and teammates have stressed to Johnson since he stepped on the field last spring and began his quest to win the starting job.

A quiet kid with a strong arm and quick feet, Johnson watched Jones perform as the heart and soul of Arkansas' offense for two years. Johnson handled practice repetitions in place of Jones in the spring of 2004, gained even more work while he was slowed by injuries last fall and made six appearances as a redshirt freshman.

Johnson completed 10 of 19 passes for 209 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. It wasn't a wealth of time. But it gave Johnson an edge on freshmen Alex Mortensen and Cole Barthel heading into spring practice.

"He's gotten, at least, a minimum of 50 percent of the practice work if you included last spring and last season," Wittke said. "That has been huge for him and a little bit of an unusual situation. But that's something that really helped him."

The coaching staff didn't name a starter after spring drills, giving each quarterback time to develop as players and leaders. Johnson, especially, had to prove himself during a summer in which he was slowed after undergoing hernia surgery.

He surprised himself by gingerly rejoining teammates less than a week after the procedure. He was on pain medication and couldn't drive, but threw on a shirt, shorts and flip flops, caught a ride to campus and attended Arkansas' next workout.

"I think the kids kind of took to it," Wittke said. "Which, I think in turn helped Robert feel good about what he was doing and allowed him to feel more comfortable in stepping up and saying something or taking charge. It's a positive by-product of the health problem. It may have been the best thing that happened to him."

Said Johnson: "I think I earned a lot of respect from the players and coaches because of that. I couldn't do anything physically, but mentally, I could help out."

It took less than two weeks for Johnson to began throwing again, even though he was still trying to recover from the surgery. Center Kyle Roper said everyone was concerned about their teammate, cautioning him to take a seat before he got hurt.

But Johnson was determined to prove he was worthy of leading the Razorbacks.

"He stepped up this summer tremendously," Roper said. "We couldn't ask much more from him. He's trying to take control of everything and get everybody where they're supposed to be. When you have a guy doing that kind of stuff, it definitely helps you have more confidence in him and want him to be out there."

Speak Up
That wasn't an easy transition for Johnson, who is the oldest and quietest of Angela Johnson's three sons. Athletic ability was never a question. His grandfather played semi-pro baseball. His cousin is former Arkansas basketball player Lee Wilson.

But being vocal was another thing.

Johnson was relatively unrecognizable on campus as a freshman -- except to ardent recruiting junkies -- and liked it that way. He said he minded his business walking across campus, kept to himself in class and rarely spoke to anyone.

When he spoke on the practice field it wasn't always loud enough.

"I was real soft-spoken my freshman year," Johnson said. "People would lean in in the huddle and ask what I said. But you grow. It comes with experience."

It wasn't necessary for a freshman to be vocal when dominant personalities like receiver George Wilson, linebacker Tony Bua, offensive lineman Shawn Andrews and cornerback Ahmad Carroll filled the locker room. And, with a team that revolved around Jones' skills for three seasons, there was no void in leadership.

But it's something he has concentrated on since Jones' departure.

"That's definitely something he has to work on," Roper said. "That's with anybody that is in a leadership position. I guess some guys are natural at it. Others have to work on it. I have a hard time with that kind of stuff too.

"But Robert is proving he's a leader and is going to lead us this season."

It doesn't matter that running back De'Arrius Howard refers to Johnson as the "baby" of the team and won't go anywhere alone. Senior Dedrick Poole said Johnson even sleeps with a blue night light on in his room.

Johnson may be known as a "mamma's boy" because of his tight-knit relationship with his mother. He even found comfort when his younger brother, Rashad, came to Arkansas, walked onto the team and moved in with him.

But Johnson is beginning to command respect on the field. Running back De'Arrius Howard and fullback Brandon Kennedy have noticed a change in his voice, which they believe is much deeper than it was during his first two years on campus.

Wittke said that's just a sign of maturity. And a confident quarterback.

"He's much more in charge of himself and feels so much more comfortable and is so much more confident in his abilities to handle what we ask him to do that it's just coming out," Wittke said. "You can see it on a daily basis. That's the most obvious thing that struck us as coaches, that he was just so much more comfortable.

"He's come a long way," Wittke said. "He's a lot more outgoing."

Dream Come True
Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said those intangibles are important, but Johnson's performance in practice distanced him from Mortensen and Barthel.

He's quick enough to avoid pass rushers, strong enough to stretch the field vertically and intelligent enough to get the Hogs out of a bad play. Defensive tackle Keith Jackson said Johnson has held the defense at bay this preseason with varying snap counts and looks "smooth in the pocket."

"He came in and performed the first week," Nutt said. "He was really head and shoulders above the other two quarterbacks the first week throwing the ball.

"He has had a good week-and-a-half of practice and now he just has to do it when the lights come on. I think he realized he doesn't have to be Superman. He doesn't have to make every play. Just take care of the ball for us."

Johnson knows he won't have a flawless season. He learned that at Waco High, when he was pressed into emergency duty at quarterback as a sophomore.

Johnson, who started the first four games at safety, was moved when the starting quarterback was suspended for violating team rules. Replacing him wasn't easy.

"I found out the day before the fifth game that I was playing quarterback," Johnson said. "And then it was a lot of things back then like, 'Robert, you can't do some of the things the old quarterback did.' Stuff like that.

"I was younger. It killed my confidence back then. But I learned from it."

He also got a sampling of disappointment when he replaced Jones in the fourth quarter of Arkansas' 20-14 loss to Georgia. He finished 0 of 2, was sacked a handful of times and failed to move the offense when it needed to score a touchdown.

Johnson had trouble sleeping after the game. He intended to prove he was worthy of the job and admitted his confidence was shaken after the performance.

But Wittke believes Johnson has benefited from the disappointment.

"That's as bad as it can get," Wittke said. "We told him, 'You've experienced the lows and you made it through. You're still alive. We didn't run you out of town. Nobody trashed your dorm room or anything like that. You'll make it.

"An experience like that, you have to look at the positives and try to grow from it and I think that he has."

Johnson has the words "Hard" and "Times" tattooed on his arms, reminding him of the struggles he went through growing up in a single-parent home. He also has the phrase "I'm above the game" stitched on his leg. Then there's a tattoo with the slogan "Hold My Own," on his back, encouraging him to stand up for himself.

The three phrases carry some significance as he prepares for Saturday's opener.

After all, Wittke said Johnson will hear Matt Jones' name any time one of his passes misses its intended target. It's unavoidable. He'll be under the lights, performing in a packed stadium watching his every move. It could be a nightmare for a lesser person.

But Wittke said the youngster he caught sneaking cat naps in the quarterback meeting room two years ago has grown by leaps and bounds. So it should be no surprise that the confident Johnson has a much different view of his new role.

"It's actually a dream come true," he said. "When I was a kid I always dreamed of being the starting quarterback at a D-I school. It's finally coming true."

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