ORONO, Maine — Derrick Johnson is the fastest player on the University of Maine football team. He has been clocked in 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
“I’m definitely the fastest guy,” said a smiling Johnson, who has bragging rights over classmate Kendall James.
The senior wide receiver from Hempstead, N.Y., hopes to put his fast legs and his considerable experience to work Saturday at 3:30 p.m. when the Black Bears play Bryant University on Morse Field at Alfond Stadium.
Johnson, who checks in at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds, is determined to take full advantage of his fifth season. He is UMaine’s leading receiver through two games with 13 receptions for 120 yards.
“He’s had a very good start to the year. He’s caught the ball well and he’s been reliable,” said UMaine head coach Jack Cosgrove.
Johnson is a veteran presence on the outside for UMaine, which counts on him to help “stretch” the field vertically.
“We like to think we recruit speed all the time, but there’s speed and there’s special speed. He’s in that second category,” Cosgrove said.
Johnson wants to build on a junior season during which he made 31 catches for 346 yards and two touchdowns in 10 games. One thing he appears to have going for him, finally, is good health.
Johnson was lost for the season during the third game of the 2011 campaign with a torn meniscus (cartilage) in his knee that ultimately required two surgeries.
Though sitting out with the injury was difficult, he maintained a positive attitude moving forward.
“Looking back on it, personally, it wasn’t the best situation for me,” Johnson said, “but we went to the playoffs that year with a great team.”
Johnson worked his way back after the two surgeries intent on returning to the field and being better than before. He said is now faster than ever.
Cosgrove said the coaches and trainers had to manage Johnson last year to make sure he didn’t break down.
“We had to kind of go at it with kid gloves last year coming back from the surgery and all,” Cosgrove said.
Johnson worked hard coming into this season to make sure he would be 100 percent healthy and ready to go.
“When something like this that’s so important is taken away from you, you appreciate it more so you want to work harder at it,” said Johnson, who did more running, weight training and film review.
He established a level of focus and intensity in his training that has enabled him to demonstrate gains.
“This spring and through preseason he’s taken advantage of his reps and kind of started to pull away from the other guys,” said UMaine receivers coach Kyle Archer.
“D.J. knows this is his last shot. If he can stay healthy, he can do special things for us this year,” he added.
Johnson attributes much of his good fortune to his upbringing, although he encountered some challenges as a youngster. As a second-grader, he moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived with his mother Kim Davenport, to Long Island, where he moved in with his dad, Daryl Johnson.
“It was extremely hard. I didn’t want to leave my mom, but had to try to make something of myself and potentially help her out later on in life,” he said. “It was a life-changing opportunity.”
Johnson’s move coincided with an emphasis on his participation in sports. He said his father played basketball at the University of Southern California in the 1980s.
“He said I had to play sports or I couldn’t live in the house,” Johnson joked.
Still, he recalls having a shaky start on the football field as a linebacker.
“I cried every play,” Johnson said. “I actually didn’t want to play football, but my dad, he didn’t let me quit.”
Johnson said his dad made numerous sacrifices for him, including paying for him to attend Holy Trinity High School, a Catholic school in nearby Oyster Bay.
Johnson had two good seasons, piling up 67 receptions for 880 yards and nine TDs despite missing some of his junior season because of a sports hernia.
“I figured I could somewhat repay him by getting a scholarship,” said Johnson, who also was motivated by his humble beginnings. “I wanted to prove that just because you come from a certain environment, you can come out on top of anything.”
Daryl Johnson also sent Derrick to numerous camps and did anything he could to further his football pursuits.
“I just wanted to make him proud,” said Johnson, who received a scholarship offer from UMaine.
Johnson, whom Cosgrove said has drawn the attention of NFL scouts because of his speed, will earn his business administration degree in marketing in December. He then plans to attempt to complete the management sequence in the spring.
While at UMaine, he credits strength and conditioning coaches Dan Nichol and Matt King, along with his teammates and coaches, for helping him improve both physically and mentally.
“At this point, my confidence is exactly where it needs to be. I feel like when I go out there, no one’s going to defend me one-on-one,” Johnson said.