LEXINGTON, Ky. --- Since suiting up for his father's Harrodsburg High School team as a third-grader, Dennis Johnson's football future has been a topic of discussion across the state.
On Friday, Kentucky's junior defensive end took the next step by declaring himself eligible for the 2002 NFL Draft.
"After several weeks of praying and deliberating, I have reached my decision regarding my football future," said Johnson during a press conference at Memorial Coliseum. "I have decided to go ahead with my lifelong dream and declare myself eligible for the NFL Draft...
"It's a bittersweet moment for me, but I believe this is my time."
Johnson is coming off his best season with the Cats. He led the Southeastern Conference in three defensive categories: quarterback sacks (12, a school record), tackles for loss (19) and forced fumbles (5). He also had 61 total tackles,12 quarterback hurries and four pass break-ups to earn first-team All-SEC honors and several All-America honors from various publications.
Seated alongside UK coach Guy Morriss at the press conference, Johnson discussed the process which led to his decision. He said he began seriously considering the possibility of turning pro after the Cats' season finale at Indiana.
"I went back and forth and prayed on it... It's always a scary process," he said. "It was kind of like my high school decision (to come to UK). And you weigh the pros and cons of coming back and having a better year, maybe not having a better year, or injury."
Morriss, who played 15 years in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots, stated during the season that he believed Johnson would benefit greatly from returning to UK. When it came down to the last few weeks, however, he told his player he had to make his own decisions regarding his future.
"I'm here to support Dennis Johnson. I'm a Dennis Johnson fan," he said. "Whatever he decides to do, I'm going to back him to the hilt.
"What I did was just try to make sure that Dennis weighed all his options. The NFL will evaluate juniors who are contemplating coming out early, and I advised him to take advantage of that evaluation process. I talked to the family and coach (Alvis) Johnson, and made sure they understood how it worked. I think they went that route so that they could get the best information to make this decision."
Asked where he was projected to be taken in the draft, Johnson said it was too early to know.
"It's never really a set thing, but I talked to some of the NFL people and they said maybe lower than the third round," he said. "I believe if I go to the combine and have good workouts, I can drastically move up."
He told reporters his favorite teams are Dallas, Indianapolis and Tennessee, but would be more than pleased with "anyone who will take me."
Johnson said he currently carries 265 pounds on his 6-foot-7 frame. He knows continuing to add muscle will be a big factor in his NFL prospects.
"I've definitely got to get a lot stronger," he said. "That's one of the things coach Morriss has stressed to me. I've got to hit the weightroom like never before."