This is the third in an eight-part, position-by-position series previewing the 2012 Razorbacks. Up next: Receivers/Tight Ends
FAYETTEVILLE — Dennis Johnson knows the bar has been set remarkably high for Arkansas punt returners.
After all, the running back did watch former Razorback Joe Adams zig-zag his way around the field, shake tacklers and burst to the end zone four times last season.
So Johnson isn’t shy about what has to be done at Arkansas this season now that Adams is wowing fans in a Carolina Panthers uniform.
“I’ve got to at least take, what, five back to fill the shoes of Joe?” Johnson said.
“So if I take five back (on punt returns) and two back on kick return I’m good.”
The Razorbacks are looking for a new weapon on punt returns after a record-setting season in which Adams led the SEC in touchdowns (four) and yards an attempt (16.9). They appear to be putting their faith in Johnson after two weeks of preseason camp. The team’s kick returner is the first to field punts during practices and special teams coordinator Steve Caldwell said he’s on top of the depth chart.
Johnson said he’s eager to win the job and, if he does, has a chance to accomplish something rare among Razorbacks. Arkansas has not had a player lead the team in kick returns and punt returns the same season since 2004, when DeCori Birmingham averaged 21.7 yards on kick returns and 6.8 on punt returns.
Caldwell is confident Johnson is capable of succeeding in the dual role.
“I think Dennis has a feel where people are,” Caldwell said. “He has got that breakaway that once he sees the gap he can hit it.
“The No. 1 thing is possess the ball so let’s do a great job of fielding the punt and don’t let it hit the ground and let’s go make something happen. If we field the punt and don’t make any yards, it’s better than letting it hit the ground.”
The punt return job was supposed to be filled by receiver Marquel Wade, who showed the same type of explosiveness as Adams. But Wade was dismissed from the team after being arrested over the summer. So it left an important opening.
Johnson — who led the team in rushing last season (670 yards) and is expected to work as the No. 2 back behind Knile Davis this season — said he didn’t consider vying for the job until approached by offensive graduate assistant Terrance Butler.
Butler urged him to take on the challenge when preseason camp began. Johnson said he would consider it. After a trial run fielding punts, Johnson decided to jump in.
“It takes awhile to get used to it,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to keep doing it. It’s repetitive. You’ve got to keep doing it and doing it, get reps of it.
“I try to go out there and get a rep every time I can. Even when we’re not doing punt return, we’re doing punt, I just go out there and catch stuff just to get the feel of it.”
Johnson has proven himself as a kick returner at Arkansas, averaging 24.3 yards and scoring three times in four seasons. It included a 98-yarder against South Carolina last season, which was the 10th-longest kickoff return in school history.
But Johnson has never fielded a punt in his Arkansas career. The last time it happened was as a senior at Texarkana High in 2007. Johnson scored four touchdowns on nine punt returns, averaging 40.1 yards an attempt.
While it’s impossible to expect similar numbers, Johnson clearly has support.
“Marquel Wade, we had to let him go,” Davis said. “Joe is not here. We don’t have ‘The Jet’ anymore. So I think Dennis Johnson is the man for the job.”
Performing well as a punt returner will help Arkansas remain dangerous on special teams in 2012. It also will help Johnson add to his resume for pro football.
He was named a first-team All-SEC performer in an all-purpose role this summer and enters the season with 1,279 career rushing yards and 2,475 career kick return yards. Adding punt returner to his duties will only help as he looks to the future.
“I’m trying to show I’m versatile in any way possible,” Johnson said.
A Closer Look At … SPECIAL TEAMS
Best of the Bunch: KR/PR Dennis Johnson — After being sidelined by injury in 2010 and slowed at the start of 2011, Johnson returned to form as Arkansas’ kick returner last season. He averaged 25.6 yards a return and notched the third touchdown in his career on a 98-yarder against South Carolina. Johnson, with Knile Davis set to return as the No. 1 tailback, is poised to assume punt return duties as well this season and should give the Razorbacks an edge in the return game.
Watch Out For: KR/PR Nate Holmes — It’s not clear if, or when, the freshman will get an opportunity to return kicks and punts. But Arkansas loves his speed. The running back has worked as a return man with both units this preseason and could make an impact if teams try to avoid Dennis Johnson on kickoffs.
Biggest Strength: There may not be any team who carries a more talented kicker/punter combination into 2012. Arkansas believes it is in great hands with punter Dylan Breeding and kicker Zach Hocker. Both turned in solid seasons in 2011 and have steadily improved, working hard to become phenomenal at their craft.
Biggest Questions: Will Arkansas find a way to impact games with its return game in 2012? Joe Adams turned in the best season for a punt returner in school history last fall, helping Arkansas score four touchdowns on special teams. Dennis Johnson and Marquel Wade each added kick return touchdowns. It will be hard to duplicate the same amount of success, but Arkansas will need some game-changing plays.
Projected Starters: KR — Dennis Johnson, Sr. (25.6-yard average in 2011); PR Dennis Johnson, Sr. (Zero career punt returns); P Dylan Breeding, Sr. (45.3 yard average in 2011); PK — Zach Hocker, Sr. (21 of 27 on field goals in 2011); SNP — Alan D’Appollonio, So. (second season as deep snapper); Holder — Brian Buehner, So. (holder in 13 games last season)
Other Contributors: KR — Ronnie Wingo, Sr.; Nate Holmes, Fr.; PR — Nate Holmes, Fr.; Keante Minor, So.; PK — Cameron Bryan, Sr.; P — Zach Hocker, Jr.
That Figures: 118 — Place kicker Zach Hocker set the school record for points scored by a kicker in a single season. The sophomore made 21 field goals and 55 extra points to break a mark held by Alex Tejada (2007). The 21 field goals also ranked second on the school’s list behind Kendall Trainor, who made 24 in 1988.
Quotable: “We hope we can kick it into the end zone every time. If that works out, which we think it should be able to by what Hocker has done so far this fall, he has been able to do that. So we do want to kick the ball in the end zone and give them no chance for a return. But there will be times the wind will be in our face and we have to make dang sure we have got great coverage because it won’t go in there.” — Special teams coordinator Steve Caldwell on Arkansas’ philosophy for kickoffs under new NCAA guidelines in 2011. Teams will kick the ball off at the 35-yard line and touchbacks will result in teams beginning drives at the 25-yard line.
— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau