FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – For the first four days of spring practice, the Razorback defense appeared to have the upper hand. But on Saturday, the Arkansas offense bounced back and showed some of its explosive potential in a 70-plus play scrimmage at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Some familiar faces spearheaded the offensive charge with sophomore Darren McFadden and junior Peyton Hillis displaying their talents and versatility. McFadden rushed only five times, but racked up 102 yards including 60 yards on a touchdown run. Hillis diversified his contributions rushing four times for 55 yards and a touchdown and snaring three passes for 44 yards and a score. Hillis scored the first touchdown of the scrimmage on a 50-yard jaunt. He later found the end zone on a 25-yard pass from Razorback quarterback Robert Johnson.
“The thing about (Darren) McFadden, (Peyton) Hillis and Felix Jones is that if any time you take one bad angle or one bad step, these guys are break-away guys,” Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt said. “Peyton is a little quicker than last year. For sure Felix (Jones) and McFadden are home-run hitters. That gives you a chance offensively.
“That is why you didn’t get too concerned the first few days when we were barely making an inch (on offense). You just keep practicing and working and here we go.”
Sophomore quarterback Casey Dick struggled to find his rhythm early, but completed some balls down the stretch. Dick finished with three completions for 38 yards. Sophomore Alex Mortensen showed poise in the pocket and completing five-of-13 attempts for 38 yards. But it was junior Robert Johnson that stood out at quarterback on Saturday. The former starter connected on seven-of-10 passing attempts for 103 yards and two touchdowns. He delivered a 27-yard touchdown pass to junior Marcus Monk while spotting Hillis for a 25-yard touchdown.
“Robert has made improvement,” Nutt said. “That is what it is all about. You come out and try to improve. For a live scrimmage, I was very proud of him. A lot times he is trying to flush out and trying to take of running to quick and not going through your reads. He really went through his reads. So I think the biggest thing is that Coach (Alex) Wood has got him to sit in there with his reads.”
A key to the offensive success on Saturday was the play of the Razorbacks’ offensive line. Although a veteran group, the Hogs up front have had to adjust to some new schemes, especially in the passing game. Arkansas’ front provided both plenty of running room and improved pass protection in Saturday’s scrimmage.
“Our offensive line got better today,” Nutt said. “Our offensive line has been having a tough time playing against the speed of the game that our defense brings. The defense has done an outstanding job all week long. Our offense has gotten a little bit better. You are trying to take baby steps and improve. There were some holes there for our backs to hit. We got some passes off today, so that is improvement. We were a little tired defensively, but I don’t worry about them because I know how they are going to come back and how hard they are going to play.”
With the Hogs’ offensive success came a different story on the other side of the ball. Arkansas defensive coordinator Reggie Herring was disappointed in his squad’s execution on Saturday. Following an otherwise promising week of work, the defense didn’t fire on all cylinders in the scrimmage.
“We have had a pretty good week, but today the offense took it to us,” Herring said. “You have to give them credit. We were sloppy today. I was pleased with the way Rashaad Johnson and Antwain Robinson came on, but other than that we have to get it going. We need Rashaad to continue to come on at safety. Antwain is playing well at defensive end. We are moving both those guys up the depth chart.”
Johnson, a redshirt freshman and the brother of Arkansas quarterback Robert Johnson, made two tackles and deflected a pass in his work at free safety. Robinson made three tackles including one tackle for loss (-3.5) in Saturday’s action. Herring announced that both will move to the top of the depth chart at their respective positions.
Reserve linebacker Matt Stoltz had a good day statistically racking up five tackles, including four tackles for loss (-12) and two sacks (-9). Junior Michael Grant and redshirt freshman Matt Harris each made interceptions.
Saturday’s scrimmage marked the culmination of the Razorbacks’ first week of spring drills. Arkansas has 10 more practice opportunities scheduled for the next 14 days including the spring game set for April 15 at 1 p.m. at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. The game will be televised on a tape-delayed basis by ESPNU.
Nutt says while there is still plenty to accomplish before then, he is pleased with the start to spring camp.
“We had a good week of work,” Nutt said “We are a little bumped, bruised and sore. Our guys are really trying to push through it. I really appreciate their attitude. We had a lot of guys playing like fighting Razorbacks and that is what we want from them to do their best. Are we there? No. That is why we have spring ball. That is why we practice.”