Tulsa's Damaris Johnson makes big impact

Damaris Johnson used to wonder what would have been had he grown just a few inches taller. Would the bigger schools have called? Would he be talked about as one of the best all-purpose players in the country?

The questions have stopped because he has done so well for himself at Tulsa. At 5-foot-8, he may not be the biggest guy on the field, but he certainly is the guy who has the biggest impact.

Last week against Rice, Johnson became the Conference USA record holder for career kickoff return yards, passing SMU’s Jessie Henderson, who set the record of 2,945 yards from 2005-08. Johnson now has 3,054 career kickoff return yards and is just 64 yards shy of tying the NCAA record held by Western Michigan’s Brandon West (3,118 yards).

He has a chance to put those records out of reach for a while. Johnson is just a junior.

“He’s a special player,” Tulsa coach Todd Graham said. “He’s also a big-time team leader. Our kids feed off his energy and his competitiveness. His numbers speak for themselves. He’s a special young man and what makes him unique is his work ethic. He’s one of the hardest workers we have in our program.”

Johnson has always been determined to work hard, mainly because of his size. As the smallest player his whole life, Johnson knew he was doubted a lot. His mantra became, “The next guy may be bigger, but I’ll outwork that guy.”

He chose Tulsa because of the high-powered offense, and the potential to play as a true freshman. Despite being from Norco, La., and helping his high school team win a state championship, none of the schools from bigger conferences showed much interest.

“If I had gone to another place, I wouldn’t be as successful. I wouldn’t be as happy,” Johnson said. “Being here -- this is the place I wanted to be.”

Johnson has been asked to do it all with the Golden Hurricane. He is the starting wide receiver. He can run as well as return kicks and punts. Johnson has caught a pass in all 35 games he's played in, and has had 130 plays go for over 20 yards in his career.

He now leads the nation in all-purpose yards with 184 yards a game after leading the nation in that category last season.

As Tulsa (6-3, 3-2) has gotten on a bit of a roll, Johnson has, too. He has back-to-back 200 all-purpose-yard games against Notre Dame and Rice headed into a critical Conference USA West Division game at Houston (5-4, 4-2). Tulsa, Houston and SMU each have two conference losses and are fighting for a chance to get into the Conference USA title game.

Tulsa has already lost to SMU; Houston has beaten SMU. If there is a three-way tie, the first tiebreaker is overall record. Houston coach Kevin Sumlin knows all too well what Johnson can do in a game. The Cougars decided to kick to him last year, and Johnson didn’t score. He still had 324 all-purpose yards in the wild 46-45 Houston win.

“I’ve watched him make everybody miss in every game even when he doesn’t score,” Sumlin said.

The Golden Hurricane have won three straight, and their two conference losses are by a combined two points -- including a heartbreaker on a Hail Mary to East Carolina in the opener. Graham said the 28-27 win over Notre Dame two weeks ago gave his team a big boost.

“Right now our guys are playing our best football, and that has a lot to do with the confidence coming off that game,” Graham said.

Johnson is a big reason, too.

“Last year, we didn’t reach our potential,” Johnson said. “We didn’t execute well. This year, I feel we’re getting right back on track with a lot of playmakers on offense and defense. Everyone’s playing real well, and that’s integral in the last quarter of the season to get to the goals we want to accomplish. And that’s being Conference USA champions.”