Arkansas Spring Football Preview Series – Part
BY ANDRES FOCIL
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Arkansas’ spring football practice is underway on the Fayetteville campus. Throughout the week, Hogwired.com will feature a five-part series previewing the Razorbacks position-by-position. In the third installment of the series, Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt gives his thoughts on the Hogs’ quarterbacks and running backs.
QUARTERBACKS: It is safe to say that no other position battle will garner as much attention this spring as the Razorbacks’ search for a new quarterback. Matt Jones left Fayetteville with a vast collection of records including an SEC record for quarterback rushing yards and a school record for touchdown responsibility. The exploits of No. 9 over the past four years include some of the most memorable moments in Razorback football history.
A trio of quarterback candidates will eventually attempt to make a little history of their own, but first they must earn the starting nod. Sophomore Robert Johnson is the only returning quarterback with collegiate experience, albeit limited stints in six games last season. Johnson completed 10 of 19 passes for 209 yards and three touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. The Waco, Texas, native did reap the benefits of most of the practice snaps last season while Jones rested his shoulder.
“Right now we have three guys and it is going to be a tight race,” Nutt says. “Robert Johnson is the guy that has the most experience. That doesn’t mean that he has 500 plays under his belt, but he has a few games that he has been in. He got a lot of good practice time last year. He is very athletic. He can throw it. He has shown signs of very good accuracy. He just needs to be more consistent.”
Redshirt freshman Alex Mortensen spent last season studying the offense and hopes his year on the shelf will result in a strong showing this spring. Mortensen has also worked in the weight room to gain much needed strength for the toils of SEC play. Joining Mortensen in the hunt for snaps will be freshman Cole Barthel. Originally signed by the Razorbacks in 2001, Barthel spent the past four years playing professional baseball in the Atlanta Braves’ organization. The Decatur, Ala., standout was a highly sought recruit out of high school, but hasn’t played competitive football since the fall of 2000.
“Alex Mortensen did a great job last year on the scout team,” Nutt says. “He is a workaholic that studies the game. He redshirted last year. He also has gotten stronger. Then we have an interesting guy that is 23 years of age and signed with us four years ago but went with the Atlanta Braves. Cole Barthel is back with us now. He is a wildcard.”
With almost no collegiate experience collectively among the quarterback candidates, Nutt says he will work hard to create a competitive atmosphere in the 15 practices the Hogs have in the spring. While nothing in practice can match the intensity of a conference game in front of more than 72,000 screaming fans, Nutt will work with UA quarterbacks coach Roy Wittke to provide the most realistic test for the Hogs’ young signal callers.
“You are going to put pressure on them, because we need to know,” Nutt says. “We need to know who the guy is that can handle it. Each individual handles pressure differently. That is one of the reasons you go through the spring. You put them in third-and-eight, third-and-seven, have a spring game and have some scrimmages. You want to see who is going to be able to stand up to that pressure because that is part of the game.”
RUNNING BACKS: Last spring, Arkansas faced the daunting task of replacing an entire offensive line and a 1,000 yard rusher (Cedric Cobbs). Despite the long odds, the Razorbacks managed to maintain their proficiency finishing second in the league in rushing yards per game. Fast forward to this spring and the Hogs appear to have all the tools to build yet another dominate rushing attack in 2005.
Senior De’Arrius Howard turned in a solid junior campaign rushing for 529 yards and six scores on a team-leading 124 attempts. Howard ranked second on the team in rushing despite coming off the bench in all 11 of Arkansas’ contests. The West Memphis, Ark., tailback will have to wait unit the fall, however, to make his claim for a starting job. Howard will miss the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery in February.
Sophomore Peyton Hillis and senior Kyle Dickerson will have plenty of opportunities to impress in the spring. Hillis was off to a torrid pace in his true freshman campaign before being sidelined by an injury in the Florida game. Hillis found the end zone six times in his first four collegiate games and tied for the SEC freshman lead with seven total scores. He also rushed for 240 yards on 63 carries. Dickerson was also a contributor out of the backfield in 2004. He played in every game, earning 31 carries and four receptions.
“With the injuries at tailback, we are going to look real hard at Peyton Hillis and Kyle Dickerson,” Nutt says. “They will get most of the load of work. I think if Peyton wouldn’t have gotten hurt, you would have seen a guy that just kept improving each week. I think he would have only gotten better. Kyle has been a reliable contributor for us year after year. I know he would like to make his senior season something special.”
Arkansas also boasts some experienced hands at fullback. The Hogs opened with a fullback in the offensive alignment only six times last season and senior Brandon Kennedy was the choice in four of those contests. Kennedy was utilized primarily as a blocking back and would likely see similar responsibilities next season. Sophomore Farod Jackson got his first taste of college play last season and will battle with redshirt freshman Kyle Payne for playing time as a reserve.
“Fullback you start out with Brandon Kennedy, Farod Jackson and Kyle Payne,” Nutt says. “Brandon has been a good blocker for us and has helped our rushing game. Farod and Kyle are guys that still have some things to learn so spring practice will be important for them. I think you will also see us use Peyton Hillis occasionally at fullback or in a one-back set. We have some options in the backfield.”
ON THURSDAY, HOGWIRED.COM WILL SWITCH SIDES OF THE BALL AND PREVIEW THE RAZORBACKS’ DEFENSIVE LINE AND LINEBACKING CORPS.
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