Arkansas Spring Football Preview Series – Part
BY ANDRES FOCIL
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Arkansas officially began on-field preparations for the 2005 season on Monday as the Hogs’ opened spring football practice. Throughout the week, Hogwired.com will feature a five-part series previewing the Razorbacks position-by-position. In the second installment of the series, Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt previews the offensive line, the tight ends and the wide receivers.
OFFENSIVE LINE: What a difference a year makes – at least that is the case for the Arkansas offensive line. Last spring, the Razorbacks were scrambling to evaluate a cast of inexperienced candidates for a starting line decimated by graduation and the NFL Draft.
This spring, the Hogs boast a talented and seasoned offensive front that not only survived the toils of SEC play but thrived in fierce competition. Despite replacing every starter on the offensive line, Arkansas ranked second in the league and 22nd in the country in rushing offense (187.4 yards per game). Even more impressively, the Razorback rookies allowed only 14 sacks in 11 games, the fewest of any team in the SEC.
“That is one group we are real proud of,” Nutt says. “I thought they did a great job last year for playing for the first time. I thought they got better. They gave up the fewest sacks in the SEC. They did some awful good things. I expect them to be even better. I expect Nate Garner, Jonathan Luigs, (Matt) Gilbow and all those younger guys to be better.”
This year’s offensive front will be led by senior center Kyle Roper. The Powder Springs, Ga., product will likely be one of the nation’s leading contenders for the Dave Rimington Award, presented to the top collegiate center in the country. Roper graded out at 90 percent or better in 10 of the Razorbacks’ 11 games in 2004, including four 95 percent-plus performances. He tallied 46 knockdown blocks in 11 consecutive starts.
“There is no question about it, Kyle Roper is our leader,” Nutt says. “He is doing a great job for us in the weight room and in fourth quarter (conditioning drills). He has been a solid performer for us. I think he has the potential to be one of the best centers in the country.”
Junior Skye Peterson spent last season spelling Roper at center. Peterson played sparingly last season and will enter the spring as the top reserve at that position again.
Junior Stephen Parker returns as a starter for the Hogs at left guard. Parker parlayed a strong effort last spring into a scholarship and a starting job. In 11 starts, he earned a grade of 90 percent or better in seven contests and racked up 56 knockdowns. Junior Tyler Morgan will likely see more time on the field after improving physically.
“Stephen was a great story for us last year,” Nutt says. “To go from a walk-on to a starter in the SEC is a great accomplishment. He will be better with a year under his belt. Tyler Morgan is really making some improvements in changing his body. He is stronger and has made some quality strides.”
Arkansas will have to fill a hole left by the departure of Gene Perry at the right guard spot. The top candidates heading into the spring appear to be redshirt freshman Jonathan Luigs and junior Chase Pressley. Luigs spent last season in the weight room and learning the ropes of the Hogs’ blocking schemes. Pressley is a former defensive lineman attempting to complete the transition to the offensive side of the ball.
UA Offensive Line Coach Mike Markuson spent a good portion of the 2004 season just trying to figure out what players were available to line up at offensive tackle. Zac Tubbs was the one Razorback that entered the campaign with tangible experience, but the 6-6, 358-pounder was sidelined for the season in early October with a left fibula fracture (broken ankle). Tubbs had started the first five games at right tackle.
Markuson utilized a pair of redshirt freshmen in Tubbs’ absence. Matt Gilbow started games against Auburn and Georgia before giving way to Robert Felton. Felton was converted from offensive guard to the tackle position. The Houston, Texas, native earned the first snap in the final four contests. Both players were recognized for their play as league coaches voted Gilbow and Felton to the freshman All-SEC squad.
Felton is listed atop the depth chart at right tackle entering spring drills. Nate Garner, a sophomore, saw limited action in his first collegiate season and is penciled in on the second team. Tubbs will miss the spring, but could be near full speed by fall camp. “At tackle, (Robert) Felton, (Matt) Gilbow, all those guys got to play last year when Tubbs went down,” Nutt says. They got some valuable experience. Robert improved game by game last year and had his best effort in the season finale against LSU.”
While Markuson was shuffling the deck on the right side, Tony Ugoh anchored down the offensive front at left tackle. Ugoh started all but one game for the Hogs missing only the Georgia game due to illness. Although he is listed as the starter on the spring depth chart, his participation in spring practice will be limited. Ugoh also competes in throws for Arkansas’ national championship winning track and field program. In his absence, Gilbow will once again gain valuable snaps.
TIGHT ENDS: Arkansas tight ends coach Clifton Ealy has one modest goal for his players this spring – stay healthy. At times last season, Ealy had to shuffle his lineup to put even one full-speed tight end on the field. Recovery time and added depth could help make that problem an issue for the rear view mirror.
Senior Jared Hicks sprained his shoulder in the 2004 season opener and nursed the injury throughout the campaign. Despite the recurring ailment, Hicks played in 10 of the Hogs’ 11 contests as a junior, snaring eight catches for 98 yards and two touchdowns. He also garnered 31 knockdown blocks in helping the Razorbacks’ yield a league low 14 sacks. For his efforts, Hicks earned honorable mention All-SEC honors from The Associated Press.
Sophomore Mason Templeton has had his fair share of physical obstacles as well. Last spring, Templeton sprained his ankle in only the second workout costing him valuable practice time. Templeton did bounce back in the fall appearing in all 11 games, including one start against Florida. He tallied 31 knockdown blocks and six receptions for 64 yards.
“Jared Hicks, if we can just keep him healthy, he looks real good right now,” Nutt says. “If we keep his body healthy, I think he will be fine. I fully expect him to be a contributor and a leader for us. Mason Templeton got sick early on in the winter time. We are just now starting to put weight back on him. Hopefully he will have a good spring.”
A trio of reserves will also make their case for playing time with a strong spring effort. Redshirt freshman Marc Winston was a lauded recruit out of Little Rock Parkview and is expected to challenge for a spot in the Hogs’ rotation. Junior Wes Murphy has been converted from defensive end and will use the spring to learn the ropes on the offensive side of the ball. Redshirt freshman Lance Thompson used his first year on campus to bulk up in the weight room. He will also be in the mix for a turn in the Razorbacks’ tight end lineup.
“Marc Winston was a guy that could have played last year, but we were able to redshirt him,” Nutt said. “I’m excited to see what he can give us this spring. Wes Murphy is going to be really interesting to see how he steps in at tight end. Lance Thompson’s body has really improved. I feel good about the depth we are developing at tight end.”
WIDE RECEIVERS: In the past seven seasons, Arkansas’ proficiency in the rushing game has sometimes led to the Razorback wide receiving corps going relatively unnoticed. The Hogs’ have featured the likes of Anthony Lucas, Richard Smith and George Wilson, but rarely has Arkansas featured a group of wide receivers that ranked among the league’s best. This year’s crop of wideouts has an opportunity to alter that perception. Led by sophomore standout Marcus Monk, the Hogs appear to be stacked with talented play-making receivers at both flanker and split end.
Monk made an immediate impact in his true freshman campaign racking up a team-leading 37 catches for 569 yards and a team-high six touchdowns. A unanimous selection to the SEC All-Freshman squad, the Lepanto, Ark., native made the most of his 6-6 frame towering over cornerbacks to make a number of acrobatic catches. Opposing defensive coordinators took notice immediately and the freshman faced double coverage on a consistent basis after only one collegiate contest. He will likely garner similar attention next season as Monk enters the spring as the Hogs’ top choice at split end.
Junior Chris Baker also provides the Razorbacks with another athletic option at that position. Baker played in all 11 games last season tallying nine receptions for 213 yards and two touchdowns. He provided one of the most electrifying plays of the 2004 season when he hauled in a 74-yard touchdown pass from Robert Johnson against New Mexico State. Junior David Thompson earned his first meaningful gridiron time in 2004 and will likely see even more snaps this fall.
“We have a good group of guys starting with Marcus Monk who was very dependable with great hands,” Nutt says. “He is working really hard right now. He is only going to get better. I think he has gotten faster. Chris Baker is one of our fastest wide receivers. We need to get him more involved. He needs to be a consistent worker for us. David Thompson went through the whole year and stayed relatively healthy. That was a big plus. I think he is going to get better.”
At flanker, Arkansas will feature two players that share both a first name and a bevy of talent. Junior Cedric Washington has already proven to be one of the Hogs’ most versatile performers contributing offensively as well as on special teams. Washington tied for third on the squad in 2004 with 17 receptions for 284 yards and a touchdown. In addition, he led the Razorbacks in kickoff returns averaging 18.5 yards per attempt. Cedric Logan played only briefly last season before being sidelined with an injury. Although technically a sophomore, Logan could regain a year of eligibility with a medical hardship down the line. The Hogs’ will add another tall target in the wide receiver mix at flanker. Junior college transfer Anthony Brown measures 6-6 and could contribute after redshirting last season.
“Cedric Washington has shown signs of greatness and he has just got to stay consistent,” Nutt says. “Cedric Logan is a guy that we really expect to emerge as one of the receivers we are going to count on. He redshirted last year. He has put on about 10 or 12 pounds of muscle. He really looks good. He had a good off-season in the fourth quarter.”
ON WEDNESDAY, HOGWIRED.COM WILL PREVIEW ARKANSAS’ FORTUNES AT QUARTERBACK AND AT RUNNING BACK.
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