FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach John L. Smith has complimented running back Dennis Johnson over and over for his change in attitude the past few weeks.
He sees a new demeanor from the senior, who has been known to sulk during his career. Johnson has improved as a leader and is starting to embrace the role with the Razorbacks. He is coming through with his performance on the field, too.
When asked what prompted the change in Johnson, Smith said it came after a meeting a few weeks ago. But Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino added one more intriguing detail Tuesday: The meeting included Johnson’s mother.
“We met together and just kind of came to a conclusion of how things could be best for all of us,” Petrino said earlier this week. “It was her caring enough about him.
“She came and met with coach Smith, met with (running backs) coach (Tim) Horton, met with myself and then we met with Dennis. It’s been a good turnaround since.”
Arkansas hopes Johnson’s rebirth continues when the Razorbacks (3-4, 2-2 in Southeastern Conference) play Ole Miss (4-3, 1-2) in War Memorial Stadium on Saturday. The senior — who led the team in rushing in 2011 while filling in for Knile Davis — has been Arkansas’ best back in gaining 328 yards and five touchdowns.
Most of the success has come in the past few weeks, with Arkansas starting giving Johnson carries that went to Davis earlier in the season. He has 29 carries for 158 yards and four touchdowns the past two games, providing a spark for an Arkansas ground game that was struggling throughout the first half of the season.
It’s no surprise it coincided with Rosalind Reems’ trip to Fayetteville the day before Arkansas played Rutgers. Petrino said she was in town for the game, but added it’s rare at this level for college coaches to meet with a player’s parents.
But if Smith’s glowing review of Johnson is any indication, the meeting worked.
“Dennis just seems to be growing and blossoming, and really becoming a guy that is really positive on the practice field,” Smith said. “We always knew Dennis had it in him, but now he is letting it rub off a little bit on the guys around him.
“He is being much more of a leader and taking responsibility, and I think he kind of likes it and cherishes that. I kind of see that out of him.”
The exact reason for the conversation is not known, but Johnson has been through plenty in his senior season. He missed time during preseason practices because of his grandmother’s death. Johnson missed one practice earlier this fall because of a migraine headache. He also had been playing with a broken hand.
Johnson has declined interview requests since the Kentucky win. His mother couldn’t be reached for comment this week. But tight end Chris Gragg, who is one of Johnson’s roommates, said the running back is like everyone else on the roster.
“He just wants to get wins,” Gragg said. “When we started real slow this year, as seniors we talked about it. As seniors we want to go out there and finish strong. He really took it upon himself to go out there and be the running back that we needed.”
Arkansas is hopeful its ground game has turned the corner with Johnson charging through the middle of the line, breaking tackles and rambling for yards. He scored three touchdowns in the 49-7 win against Kentucky (two rushing, one receiving) and has the team lead in total touchdowns so far this season (six).
Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson remembered how valuable Johnson was to the 29-24 win at Ole Miss last season as well. The Razorbacks fell in a 17-0 hole until Johnson broke free for a 52-yard touchdown run, igniting an Arkansas comeback.
So Wilson isn’t surprised Johnson is hitting his stride at this point in the year.
“Every year right around this time he’s the guy that’s still around making plays and giving us that boost,” Wilson said. “He’s done that his entire career. I’m glad he’s still with us and doing that for us right now because we need it.”
The good news for Arkansas: Johnson has a history of saving his best performances for Southeastern Conference games.
He topped the 100-yard mark in rushing three times in his career. Each of them came against SEC opponents (LSU in 2008, Florida in 2009, Ole Miss in 2011).
Petrino said Johnson is inching closer to that type of performance once again this season and will continue to play an important role in the offense.
“He’s been playing really well,” Petrino said. “He’s been playing hard. … He’s done a good job. So we’ve just got to keep that rolling.”
If it does, Arkansas will continue to point to the late-September discussions with Johnson and his mother as the turning point.
“I think Dennis, without a doubt, listened and said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do that, I’m going to change. I’m going to try to do what you’re asking.’
“So ever since then he’s been super.”