Position Analysis: Special Teams:

Coach takes time, lets punter mature

By: Bob Holt
Published: Friday, August 18, 2017
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema talks with punter Blake Johnson during practice Friday, July 28, 2017, in Fayetteville.
Photo by David Gottschalk
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema talks with punter Blake Johnson during practice Friday, July 28, 2017, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- The Arkansas Razorbacks' coaching staff went all the way to Long Beach, Calif., to sign punter Blake Johnson as part of the 2015 freshman class.

Johnson was one of two punters to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, Texas, and several recruiting services rated him among the top five nationally.

Special teams

KEY LOSSES P Toby Baker, PK Adam McFain, DS/H Matt Emrich

RETURNING STARTER PR Jared Cornelius (12-85 yds), KOR Deon Stewart (21-419 yds), DS Bob Decker, KO Connor Limpert

WHO’S BACK PK Cole Hedlund (5-7 FGA, 25-25 PAT), Blake Johnson (2 punts, 47 yd avg.),

WHO’S NEW PK/P Blake Mazza, H Reid Miller, H Grant Morgan, DS Jordan Silver

ANALYSIS Hedlund has been off and on the team’s No. 1 placekicker the last two seasons, but he had four kicks blocked in 2015 and has struggled with consistency. Coach Bret Bielema said Hedlund has had a strong camp. Johnson appears ready to take over as the top punter after serving as Baker’s apprentice. Cornelius is a reliable punt returner, but missed most of camp to rest a sore back. The Razorbacks are looking to improve on kickoff returns after averaging 18.6 yards last season.

The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville had an opening for a punter with the loss of Sam Irwin-Hill -- who handled those duties in 2013 and 2014 -- and Johnson seemed the logical choice to fill it.

But junior Toby Baker, a walk-on who was Irwin-Hill's backup, won the punting job over Johnson and held it the past two seasons.

At first, Johnson said, it was disappointing not being the punter after he arrived on campus, but it has proved to be a positive.

"I know there were expectations for me coming out here, being on scholarship and all that," Johnson said. "At first it was frustrating. But I think sitting behind Toby was the best thing for me. Coming in maturity-wise, I had a lot of growing up to do."

Johnson was arrested and cited for public intoxication and being a minor in possession of alcohol on Aug. 23, 2015, when he was an 18-year-old true freshman.

"Socially, after growing up in Southern California, coming out here to Arkansas was a big deal for me," Johnson said. 'It was really hard on me at first. My head was in so many different places.

"Just meeting all new people and having my family so far away and no one out here. But I've really come to love Arkansas, so it has turned out for the best."

Johnson redshirted in 2015, then was Baker's backup last season, though quarterback Austin Allen was briefly listed as the team's No. 2 punter on the depth chart.

Baker, who was put on scholarship last season, is a rookie free agent with the Los Angeles Chargers, and Johnson finally looks ready to be the Razorbacks' punter.

Johnson has worked as the starter throughout training camp, and he's shown improved leg strength, hang time and consistency.

"When I first got here it was good ball, bad ball," Johnson said. "But now I can definitely say it's good ball, good ball, so there has been that improvement."

Johnson, who had punts of 48 and 46 yards against Texas State last season in his only game, didn't hit the ball well in last Saturday's scrimmage, Coach Bret Bielema said.

But Johnson has bounced back, Bielema said, and punted well this week.

"I gave him a five-minute warning just to get his leg warmed up and I had him hit two punts at the end of practice with everybody around him," Bielema said Wednesday. "He boomed two over 55 yards, over 4.5 (second) hang time.

"So he's been very positive."

Johnson said he's had a different mindset coming into this season knowing he was set up to be the No. 1 punter.

"It made me realize how much more responsibility I have on my shoulders," he said. "I definitely came in working a lot harder and more prepared."

Bielema agreed with Johnson, saying that having him wait wasn't a negative situation because Baker proved he was ready to handle the job.

"It delayed his involvement, but also allowed him to grow," Bielema said. "I think he's a kid that physically and mentally needed to grow a little bit."

Johnson said he learned from Baker, watching how he approached punting in practice and games.

"Toby was a really good influence on me, the way he conducted his business," Johnson said. "He was a very mature and responsible guy."

Johnson's maturity process continued last spring when Bielema said he was in "extreme timeout" and being held out of a practice after rolling his ankle in an activity that didn't involve football.

Bielema allowed Johnson to return to practice the next week.

"It's not something I really like to talk about," Johnson said. "I don't want to go into any specifics. It was a tough situation and something I learned a lot from and I'm better for it. I'm just grateful to Coach B for what he's done for me."

Bielema said he's confident in Johnson.

"Since the timeout last spring he's been on a path that's really, really good," Bielema said. "He's hitting the ball extremely well and I'm excited about it to see where it goes."

Sports on 08/18/2017

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