FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas football players will see at least one familiar face on the coaching staff when they return from winter break next week.
Bret Bielema has retained Taver Johnson, who was the Razorbacks’ assistant head coach and linebackers coach in 2012. Johnson will slide back to work with Arkansas’ cornerbacks, a position he coached at Ohio State from 2007-11.
“I just wanted to say how excited my family and I are of staying at the University of Arkansas,” Johnson said during a teleconference Wednesday.
“Coach Bielema has been awesome. (Athletic director) Jeff Long has been awesome throughout the process. We are definitely extremely elated about this situation and we’re ready to move forward and get going.”
Johnson is the eighth assistant coach to officially join Bielema’s staff with the Razorbacks. So far, he’s the only member of the 2012 staff to be retained in a coaching role. Former Arkansas cornerbacks coach Bobby Allen will remain with the football program as director of high school relations.
Johnson was asked about the process that eventually led to his official addition to the staff Wednesday and said Bielema was up front and honest with him throughout the past month. He and Bielema talked regularly until the final phone call came Wednesday, when Johnson was informed he was part of the staff.
“When there is a change of staff, the head coach definitely has things in his mind and pieces to his puzzle that he would like to put together,” Johnson said. “So sometimes the pieces, they don’t fit as quickly as you would like them to individually. But being a part of the puzzle is the ultimate goal and we’re just excited that happened.”
Johnson is now part of a defensive staff that includes defensive coordinator Chris Ash, defensive line coach Charlie Partridge and linebackers coach Randy Shannon.
The group is likely complete. Bielema has one more opening on the coaching staff and it will likely be used to hire a tight ends coach.
Johnson said he does not know even though they worked in the Big Ten at the same time. But the two have spoken on the phone and Johnson said they mesh.
Bielema said Johnson would help “provide stability” for returning players. The coach was in charge of the Razorbacks during a two-week stint last April, when Long fired Bobby Petrino, searched for the next coach and found John L. Smith.
“Taver spent five years in a championship culture prior to coming to Fayetteville, and his tremendous abilities as a leader were seen by the entire nation during the spring and throughout the 2012 season,” Bielema said in a news release. “His coaching style is extremely enthusiastic and he has always shown an incredible commitment to the development of student-athletes.”
Johnson has spent most of his coaching career working in the front seven, but said his move to cornerbacks should be seamless. He first worked at the position at Ohio State, but helped produce three NFL Draft picks at the position in his tenure.
Johnson thanked former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel for that opportunity because, in the end, it was the reason he now remains on staff with the Razorbacks.
“That’s the first place I did it and I really enjoyed it,” Johnson said. “What it has allowed me to do is really expand my knowledge as a coach defensively and just overall. And it’s given me some flexibility. And quite honestly, it allowed me to have this opportunity to stay here at Arkansas having coached in the back end.”
Arkansas lost two underclassmen — running back Knile Davis and guard Alvin Bailey — to the 2013 NFL Draft.
But one other junior said he’ll be back to play for Bielema.
Defensive end Chris Smith announced on New Year’s Eve he is returning to the Razorbacks for his senior season.
“Arkansas Razorback Fans I have made my choice I am staying for one more season at Arkansas I will not enter the draft this year,” Smith said via Twitter.
Smith is one of a handful of juniors who planned to evaluate their draft status after the season. His return will benefit a defense that struggled through much of 2012 because of injuries, youth and depth issues.
The North Carolina native led the Razorbacks and ranked fourth in the Southeastern Conference in sacks (9 1/2) during his first full season as a starter. Smith and sophomore Trey Flowers (6 sacks) combined to form one of the best pass rushing duos in the SEC last season.