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 left guard.
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: