FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas receiver Javontee Herndon grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., so the 45-minute drive down to Gainesville was pretty easy.
He made several trips to attend Florida football games with his family. Herndon said they were Florida fans, so there was nothing like being part of the deafening crowd in the Swamp when it was home to so many big college football games.
“I haven’t been in that stadium since my junior year in high school,” said Herndon, who graduated from The Bolles School in 2009. “The last game I was at was Florida vs. Miami (in 2008). I never went back after that because they didn’t recruit me.”
Herndon will return this weekend, though, as a key member of an Arkansas team trying to snap the program’s SEC winless streak against the Gators.
The 6-foot-1, 194-pound Herndon left home four years ago as a lightly recruited receiver who didn’t receive his best scholarship offer until Arkansas called on national signing day. Now, he’s the Razorbacks’ No. 1 receiver and a key veteran for a young offense making a transition under coach Bret Bielema.
Herndon has 14 catches for 236 yards and 4 touchdowns, serving as quarterback Brandon Allen’s go-to player in an offense built around the run. He intends to show his value to the passing game in front of friends and family Saturday night.
“It’s going to be awesome,” Herndon said. “Close to home. It’s 45 minutes from my house. So I’ve got a lot of friends and family coming. It’s going to be very exciting. I’ve been to a lot of games, but I’ve never played there. So it should be fun.”
Herndon’s climb to the top of Arkansas’ depth chart nearly took his entire career.
Bobby Petrino offered Herndon a scholarship on signing day and the receiver was the last piece of a class that included Marquel Wade, Julian Horton and Maudrecus Humphrey. He was the least touted among the group, too, which joined returning receivers Greg Childs, Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Cobi Hamilton on the roster.
Herndon played right away, catching two passes for 32 yards as a true freshman. His workload grew a little more as a sophomore in 2011 (8 catches for 137 yards). But he could never quite grab the limelight even after catching 21 passes for 304 yards with 3 touchdowns, finishing second on the team in receiving in 2012.
That changed in the offseason when Arkansas was in search of a receiver it could count on after Hamilton’s departure. Herndon was an obvious option as a senior. He began to prove worthy of the tag last spring and it has continued this fall.
“Javontee is smart,” Arkansas receivers coach Michael Smith said. “He knows a lot about the position and I think it’s just because he sat back and watched the guys before him and never settled on being a backup. But unfortunately it just never happened for him. Now it is and he’s just taking advantage of that opportunity.”
Herndon, whose older brother was a receiver at Minnesota (2007) and Vanderbilt (2008-10), has carved out his own niche with the offense.
He caught two touchdown passes in the opener, including an impressive one-handed grab. Herndon has another one-handed grab on his resume as well and leads the Razorbacks with four touchdown catches in five games.
He accomplishments have come despite being described as a one-man show by Bielema a couple weeks ago. The emergence of sophomore Keon Hatcher and freshman Hunter Henry has helped take some of the pressure off Herndon.
But Allen said Herndon’s impact won’t change.
“He’s very cool under pressure and he’s got a level head,” Allen said. “The biggest thing is his experience. He’s been there. He’s done it. That kind of experience helps.”
Smith agreed, saying Herndon wouldn’t be starting at Arkansas or playing a vital role in the SEC if he didn’t have talent.
He added Herndon has been “my guy” as Arkansas’ receiving corps continues to grow with youngsters like Hatcher, D’Arthur Cowan, Eric Hawkins, Drew Morgan and Melvinson Hartfield.
“He’s a good wide receiver,” Smith said. “And I think he’s developed over the time I’ve been here both as a player and as a leader. The guy’s got talent obviously.”
Herndon hopes it shows when he plays the first game in his home state Saturday.
“My dad always told me don’t pay attention to the ratings,” Herndon said about his two-star ranking out of high school. “If you go out and play hard and you show what you can do, somebody is going to notice you.
“I feel like I’ve been given that opportunity here. That’s why I’m very happy to be here. Yeah, Florida didn’t recruit me. But I feel like I ended up at a better place.”