Arkansas Kick Returner Looking For ‘Big One'

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas running back Dennis Johnson believes "the big one" is coming.

The freshman isn't exactly sure when. He doesn't really know how, either. But after gaining confidence as Arkansas' kickoff return man the past few weeks, Johnson is pretty sure he'll be crossing the goal line at some point this season.

"Every time I get the ball in my hands I think I'm going to score a touchdown," Johnson said. "I've got one in me somewhere."

Arkansas may be struggling to win games against ranked teams, but the Razorbacks (2-3, 0-2 in Southeastern Conference) have found someone they can count on to produce on special teams as they prepare for 20th-ranked Auburn (4-2, 2-2) on Saturday.

The 5-foot-7, 195-pound Johnson enters the game ranked seventh in the SEC in kickoff return yards (22.3 yards a return). He may not have the world-class speed of return men like LSU's Trindon Holliday, but the Texarkana native has been a big weapon for a team trying to cling to positives amid three straight losses.

"You're glad when you see that he doesn't have to down it in the end zone and he has a chance to bring it out," Arkansas running back Michael Smith said. "Because pretty much every time he's given us great field position. And not to have to go 80 yards every time, I think it helps us out."

Five of Johnson's 15 returns in the past three games have gone for 33-yards or more. Even more, Arkansas has only scored three offensive touchdowns during that stretch. Two of them have followed big returns by the freshman.

Last Saturday, Johnson notched a 33-yard return after the Gators built a 17-0 lead. The Hogs started at their own 43 thanks to Johnson and they punched the ball into the end zone.

"Every time he gets a return to the 50-yard line we're all like, ‘All right, it's time to score,'" tight end D.J. Williams said.

Said Johnson: "I'm happy when they score after my return. Everybody comes to the sideline and tells me, ‘You set that up. You set that score up.' So what more could I ask for?"

Johnson said he wants to produce like his predecessor, who was one of the best kickoff returners in school history.

Felix Jones left Arkansas with the school's best career average for kickoff returns (28.2 yards). He was a two-time, All-American kick returner, who took four back for touchdowns in his career.

Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino believed Johnson has the same potential when he recruited him. Arkansas put him in the mix as a punt and kickoff returner in preason practice, but Johnson wasn't the top option for the opener. Those duties went to safety Elton Ford, who lost a fumble on his first attempt.

The Razorbacks turned to Johnson soon after. They peeled back his work as a punt returner, let him concentrate on returning kickoffs and he has flourished in the role lately.

"He's got those wide hips and short legs," Petrino said. "So there's not a lot of surface to tackle. Guys kind of bounce off his hips. He's shown that in probably three of the games."

Johnson said it's not that difficult. He's just looking for a hole to run through and, if there isn't one, he'll just "make one."

It has helped him come close to breaking away. But Johnson is confident he'll be able to outrun an entire coverage team soon.

"I hope this week I get the big one," he said. "If not, I'll just keep trying the next game."

Big Returns

Arkansas freshman Dennis Johnson has shined in his role as the Razorbacks kick returner. He is averaging 22.3 yards a return and has five of 33 yards or more the past three games. Here is a look at Johnson's big returns and how they've helped Arkansas:

Opponent Return Yards Field Position Result

Alabama 41 Alabama 47 Touchdown

Alabama 33 Arkansas 40 Punt

Texas 33 Arkansas 37 Missed Field Goal

Texas 34 Arkansas 46 Turnover on Downs

Florida 33 Arkansas 47 Touchdown

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