Back On Familiar Ground

FAYETTEVILLE — Robert Johnson laughed at the Internet rumor that circulated earlier this summer, claiming he was planning to transfer to Baylor.

He didn't pay much attention, either, to the assumption that his time as Arkansas' starting quarterback had come and gone.

"I didn't really think like that," Johnson said. "I just thought, ‘You got to forget about it,' and come out and prove myself once again."

Arkansas coach Houston Nutt has been impressed with what he's seen so far from the junior, who fittingly has the word "Hard" tattooed down one arm and "Times" scrawled on the other.

With sophomore Casey Dick sidelined with a nagging back injury, Johnson has shown enough over the first two weeks of practice to reclaim the starting job he lost toward the end of last season.

"I tell you what, Robert has improved, and boy, we want everybody to get behind him," Nutt said Wednesday night after he named Johnson the starter. "Our team is excited."

So is Johnson.

He admits he was relieved when he learned that he had beaten out freshman Mitch Mustain — the highly publicized fan favorite — to earn the chance to start the Sept. 2 season opener against the University of Southern California at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

But it wasn't that long ago that Johnson was questioning his abilities and having difficulty accepting his role as a backup.

Johnson started the first seven games as a sophomore last season, but things didn't go as either he or Nutt had hoped for.

The Razorbacks opened the season 2-5, and after struggling to move the offense downfield, Johnson was benched in favor of Dick — then a relatively unknown freshman — over the final four games.

"It was real hard at first. You can't lose focus," Johnson said. "You can't go around moping and hanging your head because it's a team sport; it's not all about one person."

The 21-year-old Johnson has a quiet confidence about himself. He has the phrase, "I'm above the game" tattooed on one leg, and he has his full name inked on the back of his calves.

But despite looking impressive in the spring, Johnson was considered the unpopular choice among some Arkansas fans to beat out Dick and Mustain for the starting job.

Of course, like everything else, Johnson didn't give that perception much thought. He felt the additions of offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and quarterbacks coach Alex Wood helped his chances in the three-man quarterback race.

"It gave me a fresh start. It gave each one of us a fresh start — come in, learn a new offense," Johnson said. "We all started off about the same."

Johnson was not entirely healed from a second hernia surgery when Arkansas opened preseason practices earlier this month. But with Dick unable to compete because of soreness in his back, Johnson used the opportunity to retake the starting job.

He has impressed Nutt with his ability to be accurate with his passes and make better decisions on the run than he did a year ago.

In particular, Nutt pointed out that Johnson has gotten better at realizing that he should dump the ball if a curl route isn't open. In addition, the junior has learned to take off running if the wide receivers are covered.

"His decision-making is much better now than it was a year ago," Nutt said, "and again, it's just hard to replace experience."

What an unlikely experience the last year has been for Johnson.

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