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Welcome back, Daje Johnson

Now back to health, the speedster make his presence felt on Saturday.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Assessing the importance of sophomore offensive weapon Daje Johnson to the Texas Longhorns is pretty simple -- if he's healthy, he's the first player to touch the football on offense.

It was the case against New Mexico State and BYU to start the season before he went the wrong way on a running play against the Cougars and sprained his ankle. Against Iowa State, Johnson wasn't fully healthy and so the coaches limited his touches.

"Daje, going into the Iowa State week, was not practicing hard," play caller Major Applewhite said after the Oklahoma game. "He was kind of limping around. Then we had the Iowa State game and he could do some things. We actually had a limited package for him the Iowa State game because we didn't really know his health."

But on Saturday in the Cotton Bowl, Johnson got the ball the start the game again and while the Sooners were able to bottle up his efforts in that phase of the game, as his six carries went for only nine yards and his sole catch for two yards, Johnson's 85-yard punt return in the third quarter made it a three-score game and crushed most remaining hopes for an Oklahoma comeback with the Sooners vertical passing game so limited.

It was one of the easier returns a player could have in college football, as Johnson beat the gunner, another Oklahoma defender overran the play, and several good blocks completely opened up the middle of the field, leaving Johnson with only the punter to beat.

And that wasn't overly difficult.


The terrible, half-speed "angle" and "effort" from punter Jed Barnett was emblematic of Oklahoma futility in the Cotton Bowl as the move of Johnson to punt return paid major dividends.

"All the players are saying I should have fair caught it," Johnson said after the game. "I was thinking the same thing but I don't like fair catching that much. Then I don't like the players after I fair catch saying 'you could have taken that one back.' I just said I'm taking every one back after this one. It felt great. I was excited. My first punt return in my college career so I'm excited."

Solving the kickoff coverage struggles in another part of the equation in getting more out of special teams, and the long return from Oklahoma running back Brennan Clay indicated things haven't been fixed there, but the explosiveness and balance from Johnson make him an ideal candidate to create big plays in a phase that hasn't been a strength for Texas for some time.

In fact, cornerback Quandre Diggs had a 23-yard return against BYU and wide receiver Jaxon Shipley had a 24-yarder against Kansas State, but that was it in terms of production on punt returns this season. And the punt return from Diggs against Texas A&M in 2011 was the last game-changing play on punt returns for the Longhrons.

Now, the task for play caller Major Applewhite will be to once again put Johnson in a position to make plays offensively.

"Today we wanted to open it up and let him go a little bit more," Applewhite said. "It just goes to show no matter how he touches the ball - kickoff, punt return, sweep, throw - he can change field positions and score points. I see him back in that August mode of wanting to prove something to everybody this year. It's good to see him in that frame of mind and hungry. He's a hard athlete to stop."

Quarterback Case McCoy has the type of chemistry with Shipley working over the middle developed over the course of their entire lives and Johnson wasn't really targeted downfield against Oklahoma after finding success down the seam against New Mexico State. And in the running game, is Johnson's speed enough of a threat against good defenses to find the type of creases that allow him to produce his signature explosive plays?

Part of the equation there is his health. Johnson said after the game that his ankle was "fine" when he was out on the field playing, but did admit that he was a "little bit sore" when he was over on the sidelines. Chalk up the fine part to the adrenaline of the game and the atmosphere at the Cotton Bowl and call him somewhere around 90%.

With the bye week before the TCU game, Johnson hopefully won't even have to deal with the soreness on the sideline during the game, as long as he doesn't suffer a setback in practice, and may have that extra little bit of burst that could benefit him against the strong Horned Frogs defense.

Running backs Johnathan Gray and Malcolm Brown softened up the Oklahoma defense and McCoy was able to hit the big plays over the top for touchdowns, so Johnson wasn't heavily needed offensively since other aspects of the game plan were working so well.

Against TCU, the big plays will probably be harder to come by over the top, so having Johnson fully return to form as a difference-maker on the offensive side of the ball if the Horned Frogs are successful taking away the inside run game.

The bottom line is that Johnson is almost fully healthy, made a huge play against Oklahoma, and Texas is a much better team when he's on the field.

Welcome back, Daje.