FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Blake Johnson is entering his first season as Arkansas’ starting punter. Whether he’d ever be in this position with the Razorbacks had been in serious doubt at times during his pervious two years on campus.
The Southern California native arrived at Arkansas as a scholarship signee in the 2015 recruiting class. He redshirted as a freshman and spent a good portion of the last year in the doghouse of coach Bret Bielema.
Johnson began the 2016 season as the backup to Toby Baker, but was eventually bumped off the depth chart in favor of quarterback Austin Allen. In the spring, he was placed in “extreme timeout” by Bielema.
By all accounts Johnson has turned things around, though. He has a firm grip on the starting job and is back in good graces with the coaching staff.
SEC Country sat down with Johnson on Saturday to discuss his growth as a player and the upcoming season. Here’s what he had to say.
Q: What’s it like being the starter now?
A: “It’s been a really cool experience, honestly. Coming in I was expecting to be the starting guy. And obviously, mentally I wasn’t all there yet. Toby was nothing but a great mentor to me. He did a real good job obviously, because now he’s with the Chargers. For me, it’s been more of a learning process and growing. Now that I’m actually the guy, I’m performing the best I’ve done since I’ve been here. I’m really excited about it.”
Q: Did you think maybe you didn’t take things as serious since you knew Baker would be the starter?
A: “No, I think just the transition of moving from Southern California to Arkansas was just a lot for me to handle at first.”
Q: Why do you feel like you’re better now?
A: “To be honest, just living here for a couple years Arkansas has really worn on me. I love it here now. At first, I just struggled being really far from home and by myself. That was a really hard thing for me. But now I’ve got a great group of friends and I love it here.”
Q: How much better do you feel like you’re punting this fall?
A: “It’s night and day. I feel like I’m back to the old high school me again. I’ve had a great camp so far and I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing. I’m 10 times more consistent than I was freshman year.”
Q: Do you still feel like you had the ability after the rough start, or did you doubt it?
A: “I just mentally had a lot going on. That just kind of damped my performance. Now that my mind is clear, I’m doing my thing and I feel back to normal again.”
Q: What does a punter do during practice?
A: “(Laughs) Being a specialist definitely has its perks. I’m happy this was the choice I made position-wise to play college football. Honestly, during practice I kick during specialist time and then I go in the indoor and I probably do a bunch of technique stuff. Ball drops, air kicks, things like that for the better part of practice. Recently coach [Bielema] has been having us stay out and be more involved. It’s a lot of technique work. Lot of tedious stuff, but it pays off in the end.”
Q: Can you run a fake if needed?
A: “Yes. I hope Coach B decides to implement a fake. That would definitely be something I would look forward to and definitely think I have the athletic ability to do. We’ll see what happens.”
Q: Did you ever run a fake in high school?
A: “I did. My senior year I got a bad snap and took around the edge for 70 [yards].”