Nate Allen is a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, Allen is a voter for the Heisman Trophy. He has authored three books about the Razorbacks.
Undersized nose guard up for big test
Arkansas defensive end Taiwan Johnson puts the pressure on the quarterback during the game against the Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas will line up a nose tackle named Taiwan against Auburn's All-American center in the Razorbacks' season opener.
By birthright, Arkansas' Taiwan Johnson of Manuel, Texas, is just as American as Auburn center Reese Dismukes of Spanish Fort, Ala.
But in terms of college football credentials, Dismukes is the All-American boy. Dismukes, a 6-2, 295-pound senior, is a consensus preseason All-American. He also is consensus first-team preseason All-SEC and is on preseason national watch lists for the Rimington Trophy, Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award.
Johnson, 6-3, yields 35 to 40 pounds whether he's the 255 he's listed at in Arkansas' media guide to the 260 that Johnson reaches but struggles to maintain. He is even more outweighed in terms of experience as a third-year sophomore who hasn't lettered yet for the Razorbacks. Redshirted in 2012, Johnson played only bit parts in three games in 2013 while the Hogs wallowed at 3-9.
Yet when Arkansas and Auburn clash Aug. 30 in their SEC opener at Auburn, Ala., Arkansas coaches and Johnson believe the quick middleweight lineman can hold his own against Auburn's heavyweights with a little help from his friends on the Razorbacks defensive line.
"You can't ever allow any doubt to slip up in your head," Johnson said. "You just have to go out there and know I might be undersized, but it's not about the size of the dog in the fight, it's about the size of the fight in the dog."
Bret Bielema, Arkansas' second-year head coach, suggested Johnson's move to the first-team nose guard that Bielema calls "tilt" because he saw a fast pit bull in the undersized lineman who apprenticed last fall after moving from defensive end to tackle.
"Taiwan has jumped out to me since I've been here," Bielema said after he, first-year defensive coordinator Robb Smith and first-year defensive line coach Rory Segrest on Aug. 10 "tilted" Johnson's move towards the middle. "He goes 100 miles an hour. Taiwan, with his explosiveness, can be a very disruptive player at that position."
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Segrest, who is coaching up the nose tackle who played strictly defensive end in high school, said he is "absolutely" convinced Johnson can hang with Auburn's power game.
"He's a quick-twitch guy working his butt off and doing a nice job," Segrest said. "Obviously weight is a number, but that's something we can overcome when you execute technique and you have got power in the right spots."
Smith stresses it's not Dismukes vs. Johnson but Arkansas' defensive line vs. Auburn's offensive line. Johnson fits Arkansas' front, he said.
"I think it was finding the best four working together in tandem," Smith said. "I have been nothing but pleased with what Taiwan has done.
"I have to give credit to Bret. A lot of head coaches wouldn't risk putting an undersized guy in there."
Sports on 08/23/2014