It has been a long time coming for Dominique Johnson, who did his part Saturday to ensure he doesn’t become the forgotten back in Arkansas football’s loaded backfield this year.
Coming off two torn ACLs, the redshirt junior ripped off a 50-yard touchdown run that was the highlight of the Razorbacks’ first scrimmage of fall camp.
The scrimmage was closed to the media, but the UA did share a clip of the run on Twitter:
Head coach Sam Pittman mentioned several other players and specific moments from the 105-115 plays ran inside Reynolds Razorback Stadium, but Johnson was the first name out of his mouth in his post-scrimmage press conference.
“Dom had a nice, long run,” Pittman said. “Him coming back was nice to see.”
Not only did he miss most of last year after ending the 2021 season as the starter, but Johnson’s absence was hardly felt because of the success of Rocket Sanders. On top of the All-SEC running back returning, AJ Green and Rashod Dubinion are back after flashing their potential as backups.
Throw in the addition of Arkansas’ newest shiny toy in the backfield, four-star freshman Isaiah Augustave, and it’d be easy to forget about Johnson.
With the season just three weeks away, though, he’s making a case to get his fair share of work behind Sanders in 2023. Johnson doesn’t even seem to be bothered by the knee brace he’s still wearing.
“Had another nice run, too,” Pittman said. “Actually I think the officials whistled him dead when he put his hand down. I don’t think he was. I think he would have been off to the races on another one, too.”
That’d be a solid day for any running back, but especially one coming back from tearing his same ACL twice in the span of a year. Johnson first got hurt in the Outback Bowl following the 2021 season and then re-injured it midway through last season.
“I’m seeing confidence,” Jefferson said. “He was really confident in his knee. … It’s great to have him back on full go and to show that he has a lot of confidence in his knee.”
The Razorbacks have been working him back slowly in fall camp, but Pittman said the plan was for him to get about eight carries in the scrimmage, which is the same number as Sanders, Green and Dubinion.
The latter of those guys had a 20-yard run Saturday and also drew significant praise from Pittman.
“R-Dub, man, special player,” Pittman said. “He made some special runs today — some there was something there, some there wasn’t and he made something out of nothing. He’s hard to tackle.”
Pittman made sure to point out that Sanders also had a productive scrimmage, running for about 50 yards on his carries, but that has come to be expected of the guy some consider the best running back in the SEC.
Details of First Arkansas Football Scrimmage
The Razorbacks treated Saturday as a dry run for their Sept. 2 opener against Western Carolina at War Memorial Stadium.
That means their coordinators — Dan Enos on offense and Travis Williams on defense — were up in the booth and communicating to the other assistants and players via headsets.
It also meant Arkansas did live tackling for the first time in camp, including on punt and kickoff.
“I’ve never done that since I’ve been here, but I don’t know how you tell who’s going to be your best guy,” Sam Pittman said. “It’s scary because you don’t want injuries, but you’ve got to find the guy.”
Speaking generally, Pittman said the defense won the series that put the first-team offense against the second-team defense and vice versa, preventing the offense from gaining a single first down.
However, the offense bounced back by dominating the situational work, which included a second-and-10, play third down segment, a third-and-6, play fourth down segment and a red zone segment.
“I felt like we just came out really slow at the start of the day,” quarterback KJ Jefferson said. “Going into the next week, that’s going to be a big emphasis for us, is starting fast, being able to get out on the field and move the ball and get some momentum going early.”
Standouts on Offense
In addition to the running backs previously mentioned, Sam Pittman singled out wide receiver Isaac TeSlaa and tight end Tyrus Washington for their production Saturday.
He said TeSlaa, the Division II transfer, “catches everything,” while Washington made several catches and showcased his improved blocking
Coming off an incredibly accurate Friday practice, KJ Jefferson didn’t get too many opportunities in the scrimmage because of faulty pass protection.
That said, he still had a 50-yard completion to Rocket Sanders and 33-yard completion to Jaedon Wilson, plus passes of 17, 15 and 15 yards to Andrew Armstrong, TeSlaa and Luke Hasz, respectively, according to a UA spokesperson.
One of his better passes actually got wiped out because of a “sack,” leading to a funny exchange between the head coach and his quarterback.
“He had a touchdown down in the red area that I called back because they tagged him,” Pittman said. “He got all mad at me and said, ‘They ain’t tackling me.’ He’s probably right and I was wrong, but we went ahead and went third-and-3 anyway.”
As he has all fall camp, North Carolina transfer Jacolby Criswell got the backup snaps. He connected with AJ Green and Var’keyes Gumms for 17 and 12 yards, respectively.
“I think Jacolby is going to be a guy you’ll see be a much better player when you have to tackle him,” Pittman said. “He can run over 21 mph, but he’s got an incredible arm and was very accurate as well.”
There was only one interception, but it came after a play was blown dead because of a sack. Pittman didn’t say who threw it, but did reveal redshirt freshman Jaylen Lewis — who has been the No. 2 nickel — came down with it.
Cade Fortin was the third quarterback and threw a 50-yard touchdown to freshman wide receiver Dazmin James.
Freshman Malachi Singleton also got some reps and had a 50-yard touchdown pass to Davion Dozier. Pittman mentioned he had a nice completion to James on the sideline, too.
Standouts on Defense
According to a team spokesperson, the defensive tackle trio of Taurean Carter (1.5), Eric Gregory (1.5) and Marcus Miller (1) combined for four tackles for loss.
Arkansas’ two transfer defensive ends, Trajan Jeffcoat and John Morgan III, each had a sack, as well.
No stats were given, but Sam Pittman said Cincinnati transfer linebacker Jaheim Thomas made the most of his opportunity and singled out freshman Alex Sanford as someone who “shined a little bit.”
The story of the day was on the backend of the defense, though. Pittman was particularly happy with Dwight McGlothern, Jaheim Singletary, Kee’yon Stewart and Jaylon Braxton, saying they had separated themselves as the top four cornerbacks with Lorando “Snaxx” Johnson moving to the nickel, or “Hog,” position.
“Today was about finding them corners to see if we could leave Snaxx at Hog to be perfectly honest,” Pittman said. “And at least for a long time in the scrimmage, I was like, yeah we’ve found them because there wasn’t a whole lot happening offensively — that’s including run and pass”
It’s worth noting, though, that the wide receivers got the better of them in third-down situational work.
Standouts on Special Teams
The Razorbacks are hoping Max Fletcher will take a massive step forward in 2023 and it sounds like he had a solid day in Saturday’s scrimmage.
Sam Pittman said they had just one bad punt and it was with the second unit. Fletcher, meanwhile, “punted the heck out of the ball.”
In the kicking game, Cam Little missed his first attempt from an undisclosed distance, but bounced back strong with kicks of 54 and 58 yards. The latter of those two came at the end of the scrimmage and Pittman said it would have been good from 68.
“I can’t believe the guy’s leg,” Pittman said. “He’s just a little ‘ol bitty fella. But man, he can kick. I’ll tell you what, he’s fast, too. Maybe we can have a fake with him. He’s fast and he’s powerful and, man, he’s kicking good.”
Pittman also mentioned that Little has won the kickoff duties.
Meanwhile, backup kicker Blake Ford made all of his kicks, including from 49 and 50 yards.
Arkansas Football Post-Scrimmage Interviews
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