Four Downs: New Punt Returner? Smith Says “Wait And See”


1. New Punt Returner?

Arkansas will introduce a new punt returner when it plays Jacksonville State in Razorback Stadium on Saturday night.

It may not be running back Dennis Johnson, though.

Arkansas coach John L. Smith indicated Wednesday, while speaking at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club luncheon, someone else could be back there to return punts when No. 10 Arkansas opens the 2012 season.

“I guess the question for us special teams wise is who is going to return punts,” Smith told the club. “We’ve been working Dennis back there some … The media is here aren’t they? … OK, I’m not going to say anything further.

“You just have to wait and see who returns punts for us. That will be a new, interesting deal. Look for some young guys out there.”

Smith was pressed further after the luncheon, but declined to offer any specifics about the punt returner. He was asked if a true freshman — like running backs Jonathan Williams or Nate Holmes — won the job and said: “We’ll see.”

Johnson was viewed as the likely choice by coaches during preseason camp, getting the bulk of the work at the position. He also is listed as the No. 1 punt returner on the depth chart, while receiver Keante Minor is No. 2.

Holmes, cornerback Kaelon Kelleybrew and receiver Demetrius Wilson also fielded punts during practice. Williams did not participate in punt return drills during open practices, but Smith indicated this week the freshman would play this season and could have a role with the Razorbacks on special teams.

Smith indicated Johnson, who remains Arkansas’ kickoff returner, didn’t do anything wrong as a punt returner. He’s hoping to get younger players experience, though, as Arkansas also tries to prepare for the future.

“I still feel great about Dennis on kickoff return. Dennis will return some punts as well,” Smith said. “Having to bring some younger guys along is crucial to us at this point. Dennis is old. Let’s face it. He’s as old as I am. But we need some younger guys to start coming along in the return category. So that’s part of the reason as well.”

2. Not Worried

Arkansas linebackers Tenarius Wright and Alonzo Highsmith haven’t spent much time together on the practice field this preseason. Both players were sidelined by injuries early in camp and had been sidelined for nearly two weeks of practices.

But Wright (head injury) and Highsmith (hamstring), available to the media for the first time since suffering their injuries, said they’re confident they’ll play with continuity when the season begins Saturday night.

“It’s not like it’s two people who have never met or anything like that,” Highsmith said. “We talk, we watch film together. We’ve pretty much got a feel for how each other plays. So the transition hasn’t been hard at all. It’s actually been easy.”

The two said they’ve been working together on the practice field much of the week, although Wright has been held out of any tackling drills. Wright said both players are eager to get on the field to lead the defense against Jacksonville State.

“We’re not concerned,” Wright said. “We go out every day and just try to better those areas that we missed like tackling and sprinting to the ball and conditioning. We’re coming out every day basically playing a game at practice every day.”

3. High On Hogs

Jacksonville State coach Jack Crowe, who is returning to coach against Arkansas for the first time since being fired after the 1992 loss to The Citadel, offered some high praise for his former program earlier this week.

“I think they’re the best offensive football team in America, you know,” Crowe said. “I think the quarterback there is better than the guy out at Southern Cal (Matt Barkley), because I think he’s a better athlete.”

Crowe, whose team also plays Florida this season, added there’s something unique about every school. He believes there’s something distinct about the Razorbacks.

“What I think about them is they play with great heart and they’ve got great talent,” Crowe said. “I don’t think anybody in the West division of the SEC has any better chance than they do of winning it to be honest with you.”

4. Extra Points

It originally appeared running back Knile Davis delivered the blow that knocked Wright out of practice early in camp. But Wright said it was another play: “Once I watched film, it was Kiero Small I actually had a hit with.” … Safety Eric Bennett, who also missed time this preseason with injuries, said he’s “100 percent” as he prepares for the opener. “I’m back to full speed now,” Bennett said. “I saw it (Wednesday) when the receiver broke out on a long run and I caught him.” … Former Arkansas offensive lineman Robert Felton has been named the honorary captain for Saturday’s game. Felton started 42 games at Arkansas from 2004-07 and was named a second-team all-American by the Associated Press in 2007.

— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau