Dennis Johnson saw what the running game did for Arkansas’ offense last season.
The tough part for him was that he was watching from the sideline as Knile Davis ran his way into the Hogs’ record book.
Now, it’s Davis who’s unfortunately watching from the sideline, and a healthy Johnson would love nothing better than to light it up down the stretch the way Davis did a year ago.
The 5-foot-9, 213-pound junior is off to a good start. He rushed for a career-high 160 yards last week, including a 52-yard touchdown run to jump-start the Hogs in their 29-24 comeback victory at Ole Miss.
A hamstring injury kept Johnson out of the lineup the first two weeks, and he gradually rounded back into shape. He showed flashes in the fourth quarter against Texas A&M when he rushed for 43 yards.
And then after the bye week, he looked like the old “DJ” against the Rebels.
“I had that feeling again, that I’m back to being me, back to normal and ready to roll again,” Johnson said. “It couldn’t come at a better time, either, being healthy again and getting back out there and helping the running game get going and helping this team as much as I can.”
One of the most dangerous kickoff return threats in the SEC, Johnson will likely see his workload at running back increase the rest of the way.
When the Hogs have given him the ball, he’s produced. In fact, he’s had more than 12 carries in a game only three times during his career and has rushed for 100 yards all three times. He had 15 carries last week against Ole Miss.
“I’m very hungry,” Johnson said. “We’re trying to get a 1,000-yard rusher this year, and that’s still on the table. I’m trying to eat, trying to get there. I just have to keep practicing, keep working hard and keep producing.
“The more I produce, the more they’re going to give me the ball.”
Johnson, who has 273 yards, leads the Hogs with an average of 54.6 rushing yards per game, and he’s also averaging 6.5 yards per carry. Obviously, he has a ways to go to reach 1,000 yards and would have to average 122 yards per game over the next six games, counting the bowl game, to reach the milestone.
The Hogs would take it even if he gets close. When Davis went on his tear last season, they averaged 179 rushing yards in their last seven games after averaging just 114 in their first six games.
“He showed his speed and quickness,” Petrino said. “I thought it was the most decisive he’s been all year on his cuts, and that does take reps. The more carries you get, the more vision, the more things that you see, the better you’re going to make your cuts, and it really showed up the other day.”
For Johnson, simply being healthy and being able to run again has been a blessing.
The hamstring injury earlier in the season was aggravating, but his injury last season was life threatening.
In the second game against Louisiana-Monroe, Johnson was tackled while returning a kickoff and fell on the ball. The point of the ball was sticking up when he fell and drove into his midsection. He said it felt like a big bullet.
At the time, nobody knew how serious the injury was, but what happened was that the point of the ball drove into his abdomen and tore his bowels, doing damage to his colon.
Just before the team got on the bus after the game in Little Rock, Johnson started vomiting blood. The Arkansas medical staff rushed him over to the nearby University of Arkansas Medical Sciences Hospital, and Johnson underwent emergency surgery that night.
“It was hard. I had to learn to run again,” said Johnson, who missed the rest of the 2010 season. “I had to get my wind back. It was a long, hard process. I was glad that I was even able to come back.”
There were times that Johnson, while lying in the bed and recovering, wondered if he would ever play again.
“But then I got back around my teammates, and that motivated me,” he said. “You appreciate it a whole lot more when you go through something like that.
“A lot of people go through an injury like that and just quit football. You’re not even thinking about sports. But to come back from something like that, it just makes you appreciate the game again.”
“Depth Chart: Arkansas” takes a closer look at the Razorbacks. Tune in on Wednesday at 7 pm ET on ESPN or online at Watch ESPN.