National Signing Day
I went with my heart," said Dennis Johnson, one of the best high
school athletes in Kentucky history, explaining his decision to
spurn Notre Dame to play football for the home-state Wildcats.
Dennis, a 6'7", 256-pound defensive end from Harrodsburg High,
left unspoken what every Wildcats fan feared: If the consensus
national defensive player of the year had gone with his head, he
would have signed with the Irish.
The state of Kentucky's other top prospects--linebacker Bernard
Jackson of Louisville's St. Xavier High and the other defensive
end at Harrodsburg High, Julius Yeast--chose Tennessee and Ohio
State, respectively. "I was pretty sure Dennis was going to
Notre Dame," says the Wildcats' second-year coach, Hal Mumme.
"You spend so much time recruiting, you envision all the bad
things happening." Instead, Dennis gave Mumme and the Kentucky
program a shot of credibility.
In Dennis the Wildcats are getting a player who has made
all-state at defensive end, defensive tackle, offensive tackle
and punter. A 1997 all-district guard-forward in basketball, he
has also won three state championships in the shot put, two in
the discus and one in the triple jump. He says "Yes, sir" and
"No, sir," sings in his church's choir and is one of 20 seniors
on the Harrodsburg High honor roll. A Baltimore Orioles scout
says that Dennis, who throws in the 90-mph range, is the best
baseball prospect in the state in a decade, even though he
hasn't played in three years.
In other words Dennis is so versatile and talented that there
ought to be a law against him. Actually, there is. Dennis and
his older brother, Derrick, first played for Harrodsburg in
1987, while in second and third grade, respectively. The boys
would go to practice to be with their dad, Alvis, who has
coached the Pioneers to four Class A (smallest classification)
finals and 194 victories in 25 seasons. "We had a small team
that year," Alvis says. "Dennis and Derrick were as big as some
of our players." So Alvis slipped them onto the field during the
latter stages of a rout, Dennis at right guard and Derrick at
In 1992, after Dennis started four games at defensive tackle in
seventh grade, word of his exploits got out, and as a result of
the ensuing uproar, the state legislature passed a law
restricting high school play to grades nine and higher,
effective the 1994 season. Dennis played on the varsity as an
eighth-grader in the '93 season and made Class A all-state.
Late last year, in a victory over Bardstown High, Dennis he
blocked a punt, scooped up the ball, returned it for a touchdown
and dunked it over the crossbar. Later in the game he made seven
consecutive tackles, forcing two turnovers in the process.
In addition to Kentucky and Notre Dame, Dennis considered
Colorado, Florida and Miami. After making his recruiting visit
to South Bend in January, he narrowed his choices to the two
finalists. Dennis had been an Irish fan for as long as he could
remember. His closet was full of Notre Dame apparel, including a
hat his uncle gave him for Christmas in '96.
But Kentucky had some advantages, too. Mumme made a big
impression on the Johnsons a year ago by recruiting Derrick, a
center, without once mentioning Dennis. No other school did
that. "We truly needed Derrick," Mumme says. "For a guy who is
320 pounds, who is 6'2", to jump from a standing-still position
and dunk a basketball is something." Mumme also promised
Derrick, who redshirted last season, the opportunity to try out
at defensive tackle so he could line up alongside his brother.
"That idea may have gotten mentioned to Dennis," Mumme says slyly.
Dennis wanted to play basketball, too, and Kentucky coach Tubby
Smith--who while at Georgia turned tight end Larry Brown into a
productive forward--assured him he would be welcome.
Most important of all, Kentucky had recruiting coordinator
Claude Bassett, who possesses all the tools of an effective
recruiter: a cell phone, a salesman's tongue and a fear of
failure. On Jan. 31, the last day coaches could visit recruits
before the signing date, Bassett spent three hours at the
Johnsons' house, where he made three points:
--Mumme had, in one year, gotten Kentucky back on track by going
to a wide-open attack that enabled sophomore Tim Couch to lead
Division I-A quarterbacks, with 3,884 passing yards.
--With Derrick on the team, Dennis already understood how
Kentucky's coaches operate.
--Kentucky had been fielding hundreds of phone calls every day
from people asking, How are we doing with Dennis Johnson? "The
people love you," Bassett said. "If you commit, within a week
there will be 15 kids named Dennis."
Dennis thought about what Bassett said for two days. Late on
Feb. 2 he slipped in a videotape of November's Florida-Florida
State game. ("He loves to watch tape," Alvis says.)
"A lot of guys stay in Florida to play," Dennis says. "Why do
they do that? It's close to home. I was watching the tape, and I
thought, This is what I want Kentucky football to be." The next
morning Dennis told his parents he was leaning toward Kentucky.
At 7:15 a.m. on signing day, Derrick called from Lexington and
woke up Dennis. "Is it on?" Derrick asked.
"It's on," Dennis said.
He hung up and rolled over. A few minutes later Alvis woke him
again. "Dad," Dennis asked, "where is my Kentucky cap?"
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID WALBERG STAYING PUT Johnson gave the cold shoulder to Notre Dame and others to remain on familiar turf. [Dennis Johnson beside road sign reading "WELCOME TO HARRODSBURG Home of DENNIS JOHNSON KENTUCKY'S MR. FOOTBALL, 1997"]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY PETER READ MILLER [Marques Tuiasosopo with ball in game]
TWISTS OF FATE
The ups and downs of recruiting
1) For months the word has been that the state of Florida had a
meager crop of talent. In 1996-97, 67% of the players signed by
Florida and Florida State came from in-state. This year: 56%.
2) When freshman backup Marques Tuiasosopo of Washington (above)
threw for 270 yards against Nebraska last September while
subbing for injured sophomore starter Brock Huard, Tuiasosopo
scared off some top recruits who attended the game. Jared Jones
of Walla Walla signed with Florida State. Brock's brother Luke
signed with North Carolina.
3) Alabama signed two of the three best players in Tennessee:
linebacker Kindal Moorehead and wide receiver Eric Locke. Add in
quarterback Tyler Watts of Pelham, Ala., and 'Bama may have
signed the best class in history for a 4-7 team.
4) Michigan signee Justin Fargas committed to Southern Cal but
changed his mind when the Trojans clumsily fired coach John
Robinson. While UCLA signed four USA Today first-team
All-Americas, USC signed none.
5) Hampton (Va.) High quarterback Ronald Curry, who is also a
top prospect at point guard, is waffling on the oral commitment
he made to Virginia last fall in part because of the sagging
fortunes of the Cavaliers' basketball program. Curry will visit
Florida State and North Carolina later this month. --I.M.