SEC: Michael Smith
Normally one to sit back, listen and watch, Johnson stood up in front of his teammates and coaches and delivered his own set of motivating words. It wasn't anything special, but it caught everyone's attention because of who was speaking.
It took a lot for Johnson, who is viewed as one of the nation's best defensive tackles, to stand up and show himself in that light. And it was a big step in the junior's personal growth as he looks to become the centerpiece of LSU's rebuilt defensive line this fall.
Johnson arrived at LSU as the No. 2 overall player in the 2011 recruiting class, according to ESPN recruiting services. He dealt with the pressure to deliver instant gratification because of his high expectations while trying to adapt to a new way of approaching the game.
Like most freshmen who carry so much hype on their shoulders, the stress built up for Johnson. He wanted to impress and play at a higher level so badly that it sometimes hurt his concentration.
But Johnson quickly found a release.
A tyrant on the football field, Johnson is almost a Teddy bear away from it after rediscovering his passion for singing and joining the campus choir.
He was able to relax through his baritone voice. He'd been singing since his great grandmother introduced him to the 18th-century hymn "Oh Happy Day" when he was four. To this day, that remains his favorite song to sing.
Johnson was able to convey many emotions through song, and while football consumed him to the point of quitting the choir, that year helped him regain some clarity.
"I have to try and stay smooth. I have to keep my tough on-field persona, but when I step off the field I have to get back to the regular me," he said.
The regular him was feeling more confident and ready to learn more. He acted like a giant sponge as he soaked up run-stopping advice from older linemen like Michael Brockers and Bennie Logan. He took notes whenever Barkevious Mingo gave him pass-rushing tips. And he spent hours working with defensive coordinator John Chavis in and out of the film room to perfect his technique and movements.
He might have been getting the essentials down in his head, but in order to carry them out properly, Johnson needed to change his body. Johnson figured his 330-plus-pound playing weight as a freshman gave him an edge at clogging holes, but it was his mother who didn't approve. After seeing her following his first season, his mother noticed his gut spilling over his belt and diagnosed him with "Dunlop Disease" because of the Dunlop tire-shaped stomach Johnson had developed.
Humbled by his mother's assessment, Johnson jumped right into weight room harder and chose grilled over fried.
When Johnson addressed his teammates this month, he did so at a leaner 295 pounds. He doesn't feel like a featherweight, but he's moving faster (he ran a 4.7 40-yard dash this year) and frustrating his offensive teammates more.
"That helped get me back on my feet and do what I did back in high school: get in the backfield," Johnson said of shedding the weight.
"I still have my power and everything, but I'm just a little bit quicker and run to the ball a lot faster."
Trimming down resulted in more disruption from Johnson last fall. He registered 42 tackles, including 10 tackles for loss and three sacks last season, and rediscovered the nasty edge that made him so dominant in high school. That nastiness has only grown since the beginning of spring, Johnson said.
Labeled "The Freak" since his high school days and trying his best to mirror NFL superstar Geno Atkins on the field, Johnson is hungry to not only elevate his game, but that of the entire defense around him. He's making it his responsibility to get a defense that lost so much back into championship form.
That starts with anchoring a line that lost four NFL draft picks. It's a tall task, but Johnson has already changed so much that this seems easier than everything else he's done.
"They think this is going to be a rebuilding year, but we're doing nothing but reloading," Johnson said.
Bielema thought he had all of his guys on board, but receivers coach George McDonald left earlier this week to take the offensive coordinator's job at Syracuse.
Dipping into the Big 12 ranks, Bielema replaced McDonald with Michael Smith, who'd been the Kansas State receivers coach the past four seasons. Smith has strong recruiting ties in the state of Texas, which should come in handy for the Hogs. Smith spent a total of 15 seasons at Kansas State, his alma mater, and was also there the first time with Bill Snyder.
Below is Bielema's staff:
- Jim Chaney, offensive coordinator
- Joel Thomas, running backs
- Sam Pittman, offensive line
- Michael Smith, receivers
- Barry Lunney Jr., tight ends
- Chris Ash, defensive coordinator
- Charlie Partridge, defensive line
- Randy Shannon, linebackers
- Taver Johnson, cornerbacks
Here’s a hint: Only 10 of the players picked on the preseason team also made the cut after the season.
Here’s the 2009 preseason team, which was released in August:
QB Tim Tebow, Sr., Florida
RB Charles Scott, Sr., LSU
RB Michael Smith, Sr., Arkansas
WR Julio Jones, So., Alabama
WR A.J. Green, So., Georgia
TE D.J. Williams, Jr., Arkansas
OL Ciron Black, Sr., LSU
OL Mike Johnson, Sr., Alabama
OL John Jerry, Sr., Ole Miss
OL Clint Boling, Jr., Georgia
C Maurkice Pouncey, Jr., Florida
DL Greg Hardy, Sr., Ole Miss
DL Terrence Cody, Sr., Alabama
DL Antonio Coleman, Sr., Auburn
DL Carlos Dunlap, Jr., Florida
LB Rolando McClain, Jr., Alabama
LB Brandon Spikes, Sr., Florida
LB Eric Norwood, Sr., South Carolina
CB Trevard Lindley, Sr., Kentucky
CB Joe Haden, Jr., Florida
S Eric Berry, Jr., Tennessee
S Chad Jones, Jr., LSU
K Joshua Shene, Sr., Ole Miss
P Chas Henry, Jr., Florida
RS Brandon James, Sr., Florida
His career at Arkansas is over after hamstring injuries flared up again this season. The school announced prior to Saturday's game that he will miss the remainder of this season.
Smith had hamstring surgery at the end of last season and missed the final game. He was never the same this season and was hampered by issues with his hamstring all year.
It's a shame that Smith doesn't get to finish this season with the rest of his class. He was one of the best stories going in the SEC last season, the way he carried the load for the Hogs despite his diminutive frame.
Who could ever forget his 35 carries in back-to-back games?
Smith wasn't the biggest back to ever play in this league, not even close. But few backs have run with as much heart and as much passion.
The toughest part of Arkansas’ schedule is over. The Razorbacks were blown out by Alabama and took Florida to the wire before Tim Tebow and some lousy calls by the officials beat them last week. Now we see if Bobby Petrino’s club can build off that performance. Quarterback Ryan Mallett should be even better the second half of the season now that he has the speed of SEC defenses down. It would also be nice if the Hogs could get everybody back out there offensively from injuries, including running back Michael Smith and receiver Joe Adams. The defensive improvement really makes for what should be a promising close to the season. The swing game is this week at Ole Miss. If the Hogs can get past the Rebels, four of their final five games are at home, and they will be favored in all four games.
Best-case scenario: Mallett keeps setting passing records. Everybody gets healthy on offense, and the defense just keeps improving. The Hogs flirt with a clean sweep during the second half, winning five of their last six games, and finish 8-4 in the regular season and play in the Cotton Bowl.
Worst-case scenario: Arkansas doesn’t regroup emotionally from that Florida loss and loses its second straight this week at Ole Miss. Mallett hits the wall down the stretch, and the defense isn’t good enough to bail the Hogs out. They also end up losing to South Carolina and LSU, finishing 6-6 overall and 2-6 in the conference.
Prediction: The Hogs go 4-2 in the second half of the season, good enough for a 7-5 record, and Petrino gets to go back to Atlanta for a date in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
The latest on Arkansas' Michael Smith is that he's in street clothes watching the first-quarter action and not expected to play Saturday against Florida.
Dennis Johnson has been getting most of the running back work for the Hogs. Smith had hoped to play, but has been plagued by a hamstring injury.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Arkansas running back Michael Smith is dressed and on the field warming up for the Hogs.
It sounds like he's going to play against Florida. Smith was adamant when I talked to him Wednesday night that he was going to play after having trouble with his hamstring this week. Smith said it wasn't the same part of the hamstring that required surgery this offseason.
Smith is coming off his best game of the season last week against Auburn.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Arkansas’ Michael Smith isn’t running down any rushing titles this season, and he’s just fine with that.
|Ronald Martinez/Getty Images|
|Michael Smith hasn't had to carry the offense alone this season.|
When you’re 170-some pounds in the SEC and taking the beating Smith does, you’ll take all the help you can get. He didn’t have any last year. He has plenty this year.
And while it’s been an adjustment for the Hogs’ All-SEC running back, he understands that not getting the ball two out of every three plays is better for him in the long run and better for Arkansas’ team.
“We were one-dimensional last year, and it made it easy for teams,” Smith said. “They’d load up the box and play man [coverage] on us, and there wasn’t a lot we could do. Now, we’re daring them to do that. With our corps of receivers, I don’t think that would be too wise.”
Smith has been slowed this week with a hamstring injury. He said it’s not the same part of the hamstring that required surgery in the offseason and forced him to miss the spring.
Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino has called Smith a game-time decision Saturday against No. 1-ranked Florida, but Smith said that he’s felt better every day and fully expects to play against the Gators.
Unlike a year ago when the Hogs were leaning almost exclusively on Smith, he’s been just a part of the offense this season.
Through five games, he’s rushed for 325 yards and two touchdowns on 50 carries. He’s averaging 6.5 yards per carry and has also caught 11 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown.
A year ago, Smith piled up 70 carries in back-to-back games against Auburn and Kentucky.
Those days are gone. The Hogs are picking their spots with him, although he’s coming off his busiest game of the season last week in the 44-23 win over Auburn. Smith romped for 145 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries.
“I don’t take plays for granted because we have so many more weapons this year,” Smith said. “We’ve got a lot of quick-strike guys. You never know when somebody’s going to score, so you better do something with it when you get the ball.”
Smith, who carried it 207 times for 1,072 yards last season, concedes that he’s become more of a situational player in this offense.
“Coach Petrino is more of a situational guy,” Smith said. “He has his plays he’s going to run on third-and-short and third-and-long and the person he wants to use. I know once we get inside the 10- to 15-yard range, that’s no longer my zone. He wants to use that for bigger guys. I have to capitalize outside that range.
“I’m not the every-down back I was last year in this offense, because we’ve got more guys. But I knew that’s the way it was going to be and was prepared for it. It’s been a little bit of an adjustment, but not too bad.”
Smith, who weighed in the mid-160s for much of last season, says he’s up over 175 pounds right now. The added weight and less wear-and-tear should make him more effective during the second half of the season.
“I was running on an empty tank last year, but now I’m able to regroup a lot faster,” said Smith, who suffered a concussion in the Kentucky game last season and then later had the hamstring issue, which forced him to miss the finale against LSU.
“I really believe my best is yet to come. I want to turn it on this second half of the season, and they’ve done a good job of keeping me fresh and spreading the ball around. Because of that, I think I can be more of a factor down the stretch.
“I’ve been at this now for five years. I know I’ve got to keep my body in order. But I hope to make this second half of the season a memorable one personally and especially for these Arkansas fans, who’ve been so good to me.”
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
A couple of old hands have made their presence felt today for Arkansas on offense.
Running back Michael Smith has 102 yards rushing on 14 carries at the half, including a 25-yard touchdown run. Tight end D.J. Williams has three catches for 32 yards, including a 5-yard touchdown pass.
Smith and Williams were the heart and soul of the Hogs' offense a year ago, but had been pretty quiet before today.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Making the rounds in the SEC:
- Team Tebow is keeping a close eye on Florida's star quarterback as he tries to come back from a concussion.
- The bond between Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy and the guy he replaced, John Parker Wilson, remains strong.
- Auburn junior offensive guard Bart Eddins makes the most of his first college start, writes Jay. G. Tate of The Montgomery Advertiser.
- Mississippi State and its young secondary brace for a wild ride against Houston and Case Keenum.
- Vanderbilt could have all three of its top running backs available for the first time this season Saturday against Army.
- Maybe the no-huddle offense is the answer for the Vols and struggling quarterback Jonathan Crompton.
- South Carolina backup quarterback Reid McCollum comes back from the flu to throw his first college touchdown pass.
- Arkansas' D.J. Williams and Michael Smith are adjusting to smaller roles in the Hogs' offense.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
We may be on the eve of football season, but the pennant races are also heating up in baseball.
So in the spirit of America's favorite pastime, here are my top 10 home-run threats this season in the SEC. I didn't include freshmen or newcomers in this list:
1. Jeffery Demps, Florida: Scored eight touchdowns last season, and six of the eight were from 36 yards or longer. He's a big play waiting to happen.
2. A.J. Green, Georgia: Regardless of where he catches it on the field or how many people are around him, Green is always a threat to score.
3. Brandon LaFell, LSU: His blend of size and breakaway speed make him the best deep threat in the league.
4. Dexter McCluster, Ole Miss: He does it as a quarterback, as a running back and as a receiver. He's impossible to corner in the open field.
5. Michael Smith, Arkansas: The Hogs will feature an array of big-play threats in 2009, and a healthy Smith will be even more dangerous now that he has help.
6. Shay Hodge, Ole Miss: The most underrated offensive skill player in the league. Hodge has 14 touchdown catches in his past two seasons.
7. Randall Cobb, Kentucky: Like McCluster, Cobb's going to get chances from any number of positions this season. He's something to see in the open field.
8. Chris Rainey, Florida: Another one of those speed guys the Gators seem to breed. Rainey averaged 7.9 yards per touch last season as a redshirt freshman.
9. Mario Fannin, Auburn: He's been under-utilized the past couple of years, but not this season. Fannin is the trigger man in the Wildcat formation and will also return punts.
10. Trindon Holliday, LSU: After an off season a year ago, Holliday will be used more as a running back in 2009. He's still one of the fastest players in the college game and an absolute blur when he gets a step.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
We took a closer look at the SEC East race last Friday, although it's hard to find anybody who thinks it will be much of a race.
Today, we turn our attention to the West race, which is just the opposite. Throw Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss into a sack and pick out a winner. It's that close, and don't be surprised if Arkansas has some say in who wins it.
Here are five things to watch in the West:
1. Jevan Snead's blind side: For all that Ole Miss has going for it, there is the left side of the offensive line, specifically left tackle. Michael Oher was Snead's bodyguard a year ago, but is now counting his money in the NFL. Sophomore Bradley Sowell will enter the season as Oher's replacement. He's plenty athletic enough and actually played some tight end last season, but hasn't been as consistent as the coaches would like. They demoted him at one point in the spring to send a message, but he's had a better preseason camp and is coming off his best week. Freshman Bobby Massie isn't ready yet to step in at left tackle, so the Rebels really need Sowell to take this job and run with it.
2. Running to glory: The running games in the West should all be potent. Everybody has at least one big-time running back, and there's also quality depth. LSU's Charles Scott, Arkansas' Michael Smith and Mississippi State's Anthony Dixon are the top three backs in the league, but they will have company. Ben Tate figures to be the workhorse in Auburn's new offense. Ole Miss goes about four deep at tailback, and Alabama can't wait to unveil freshman Trent Richardson in a backfield that already includes Mark Ingram and Roy Upchurch. If you like to watch teams run the football, keep an eye on the West this season.
3. Julio's high-wire act: Tim Tebow is a lock to be a College Football Hall of Famer, and Eric Berry is the best defensive player in the league. But the guy I'd pay the most money to watch play is Alabama's Julio Jones. Watching him break tackles, stiff-arm defenders and go up and take the ball away from cornerbacks with his rare blend of strength, great hands and uncanny body control never gets old. I keep waiting for the first person who hits Jones to bring him down. He never quits competing and is as tough as they come. The guy played through a hernia, cracked wrist and bum shoulder and was still one of the best receivers in the league as a freshman. What's in store for his sophomore season?
4. Hail to the Chief: After 14 years at Tennessee, John Chavis is now barking orders to the LSU defense, which might have been the most underachieving unit in the league a year ago. Chavis, a.k.a. "Chief" to those who've coached with him and played under him, hopes to incorporate the same kind of attacking defense at LSU that was the backbone of some of Tennessee's best teams under Phillip Fulmer. In nine of Chavis' 14 seasons at Tennessee, the Vols ranked in the top three in the SEC in total defense. He's already said that talent won't be a problem at LSU, and the players love his style. We'll see if it all translates into the Tigers getting back to playing championship defense this season.
5. High on the Hogs: The folks in the Ozarks might want to have their calculators ready. Arkansas in Year No. 2 under Bobby Petrino has the pieces in place offensively to do some serious damage to scoreboards. Quarterback Ryan Mallett, a transfer from Michigan, is a perfect fit for this offense, and the collection of talent around him is equally impressive. The Hogs are deep enough at the running back and receiver positions that it may be somebody different every week making the big plays. The two things working against the Hogs are a defense that still has to prove it can keep every game from being a shootout and a killer schedule that you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
We turn our attention to the running backs in the league. There's not one great one, but there's a bunch of good ones:
1. LSU: Bruising Charles Scott is back after rushing for 1,174 yards and 18 touchdowns last season, and he'll have plenty of support. Keiland Williams and Richard Murphy are both quality backs in their own right, and Trindon Holliday is one of the fastest players in college football.
2. Arkansas: The Hogs have running backs (good ones) coming out of their ears. Michael Smith is back after rushing for 1,072 yards last season. He'll have a lot more help, too. Broderick Green, a 245-pound transfer from Southern California, gives them a bigger option in short-yardage situations, while freshmen Knile Davis and Ronnie Wingo can do a little bit of everything. Don't forget about Dennis Johnson and De'Anthony Curtis, either.
3. Florida: The Gators don't have a bunch of conventional tailback types, but Jeffery Demps and Chris Rainey are perfect for that offense. Give them a step, and they're gone. Throw Brandon James into that mix as well. If Emmanuel Moody can get over his injury blahs, he also has a chance to play a big role this season.
4. Alabama: One of the keys is Roy Upchurch being healthy. If he is, and freshman Trent Richardson comes through the way the coaches are hoping, the Crimson Tide will have another three-pronged attack. Mark Ingram rushed for 728 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry last season as a freshman.
5. Mississippi State: Don't sleep on the Bulldogs. Anthony Dixon has looked great in the preseason He's the SEC's active career leader in rushing with 2,603 yards. He's in the best shape of his career and has some guys behind him -- Christian Ducre and Robert Elliott -- who will help keep him fresh.
6. Auburn: Ben Tate is one of the best workhorses in the league. You can run him until he's dragging, and he's still going to be running over people. True freshman Onterio McCalebb is a pure speed back, and the wildcard for the Tigers is Mario Fannin, who will bounce around to different spots.
7. Ole Miss: It will be interesting to see how the rotation shakes out at Ole Miss. Brandon Bolden is the No. 1 guy right now, but Cordera Eason has looked a step faster in the preseason. Enrique Davis has a world of talent, and the coaches really like sophomore Devin Thomas and true freshman Tim Simon.
8. Tennessee: The Vols have the potential to be outstanding in the backfield, but there are a couple of ifs. As in if senior Montario Hardesty can stay healthy and if freshmen Bryce Brown and David Oku are as good as they've looked in the preseason. The Vols are also pretty strong at fullback.
9. Georgia: Caleb King has yet to live up to his billing. For one, he can't seem to stay healthy. Richard Samuel enters the season as the starter, and Carlton Thomas will be the third-down back. True freshman Washaun Ealey may end up being the best of the bunch.
10. South Carolina: The Gamecocks have several guys with promise, but nobody who's really done it consistently. Freshman Jarvis Giles went through spring practice and may be that home run-hitter South Carolina has lacked in its backfield the last few seasons.
11. Vanderbilt: Jared Hawkins is coming off foot surgery and will get some help in the form of three freshmen. Zac Stacy, Wesley Tate and Warren Norman have all made bids to play this preseason and probably will.
12. Kentucky: Starter Alfonso Smith has been plagued by a foot injury that won't seem to go away, and there are no guarantees with Derrick Locke as he tries to come back from a serious knee injury. Get ready to see one or both of the freshmen the Wildcats signed -- Donald Russell and Jonathan George.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
It's hard not to like Arkansas' corps of wide receivers.
I can promise you that quarterback Ryan Mallett does. But Mallett will have a lot more than just the wide receivers to lean on in the passing game this season.
It's a staple in a Bobby Petrino offense to get the running backs, H-backs and tight ends involved in the passing game. We know that tight end D.J. Williams is one of the best pass-catching tight ends in college football after pulling in 61 grabs last season.
But Williams told me last month that he anticipates moving around a little more this season with the hope of getting even more favorable matchups.
"Everybody's improved so much that I think it's going to be too dangerous to key on one player," Williams said. "We've got too many playmakers on the outside and too many guys who can do different things at running back for a defense to do that."
Senior running back Michael Smith caught 32 passes in 10 games last season. He'll again get plenty of chances on short dumps and screens, but so will the rest of his backfield cohorts.
Sophomore Dennis Johnson had eight catches in last Saturday's scrimmage, while true freshman Ronnie Wingo caught a touchdown pass. Sophomore De'Anthony Curtis and true freshman Knile Davis are also plenty capable as a pass-catchers.
The Hogs' running backs combined for 46 catches last season, but Smith had 32 of those.
I think you'll see it more spread out this season among several guys, and I also think you'll see that total number go up.
Maybe 60-plus catches for the Arkansas backs in 2009?
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
A few SEC links for your lunch hour consumption:
- Arkansas' Michael Smith is following in his father's footsteps. Back in the 1980s, Michael Smith Sr. was dubbed "Mr. Excitement" at Florida A&M.
- Chris Todd moves in as Auburn's starting quarterback, and Kodi Burns moves to receiver.
- Former Auburn offensive coordinator Tony Franklin couldn't be prouder of Todd's reslience, writes Tony Barnhart of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
- Challenged by Lane Kiffin and the new Tennessee staff, senior center Josh McNeil has finally bought into the program.
- There's another twist in the legal saga of Ole Miss freshman Tig Barksdale. The woman who accused him of stealing her car was convicted of false reporting of a crime.
- It looks like Vanderbilt will have its own version of the Wildcat package this season. The Commodores used it several times during Thursday's scrimmage, and a couple of the freshman running backs made big plays.
- LSU coach Les Miles is considering closing his practices completely to the media because of all the injury information that's getting out.
- Despite three surgeries, linebacker Brandon Thurmond is determined to see it through at Kentucky.