When running back Dennis Johnson was not selected in this year's draft, he had some choices to make. Despite finishing the 2012 season at Arkansas as the leader in rushing yards (757) and rushing touchdowns (8), Johnson was always overshadowed by the team's starting back, Knile Davis. Johnson made the most of his opportunities in 2011 when he was named the starter in place of the injured Davis. In 2012, when Davis returned, Johnson's carries continued to increase until he was named starter once again. When the Texans called him, Johnson said he was hesitant at first but was sure of his decision once he made it.
"I tweeted right after the draft, like about an hour or two after I told the Texans that I wanted to come," Johnson said Wednesday. "I tweeted. I said, 'I want to go learn from the best undrafted free agent there is out there, so I came."
Foster's is a well-known story of going from undrafted free agent out of Tennessee to three-time Pro Bowler. His current backup, Ben Tate, finished third last season averaging 4.3 yards per carry with 279 yards on 65 carries, but missed five games due to hamstring and toe injuries. With the departure of Justin Forsett to Jacksonville, the Texans' second-leading rusher in 2012, Johnson now has a chance for a roster spot behind the Foster/Tate tandem.
While in training camp, Foster has been listed on the Active/Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list with a calf injury he sustained during OTAs this offseason. Foster's absence and Forsett's departure have given Johnson an opportunity to shine, but he is fighting for a roster spot with fellow undrafted backs Cierre Wood, and Ray Graham as well as fourth-year veteran Deji Karim. Even Ben Tate is under pressure with this season being his last under contract with the Texans. Competition for the third spot on the running back depth chart is fierce.
"We are in this together when we walk off the field but when you are out here on the field, it's always competition," Johnson said of the other running backs. "I have always been in competition ever since I was at Arkansas so I mean, it brings out the good competition in me."
What has helped Johnson through this offseason is the advice and support of running backs coach Chick Harris. Johnson takes the coach's advice to heart and is encouraged by it.
"He says he's liking, keep doing what I'm doing," said Johnson. "I'm just going to keep doing what I'm doing and work."
Work includes looking to the veterans on the team for advice. Johnson is watching and learning what to do on the field as well as off of it from both Foster and Tate.
"Arian and Ben Tate are some good leaders of the running back group," Johnson said. "I mean, they are out here working. I watch how they work and how they conduct themselves. They have fun but they are about business and they teach. When you don't know something, they tell you. They'll help you out."
What many may not know about Johnson is his collegiate success as an elite kickoff specialist. Johnson holds the SEC conference record for most kickoff returns (119) and kickoff return yardage (2,784). In Texans training camp, it comes as no surprise that Johnson participates in kickoff returns during special teams drills.
"The young kid from Arkansas has really stood out," head coach Gary Kubiak said after practice Tuesday. "He's done some good stuff, special teams wise too."
At 5-7 and 193 pounds, the 23-year old Johnson says he brings speed and toughness to the running game. A self-proclaimed physical player, Johnson laughed when asked if his size had ever been a challenge in his style of play.
"I don't think my size is the biggest challenge because I have been this size all my life, so I got this far with it," he said good-naturedly. "It's just me being focused and coming out here every day prepared."