There were good moments. There were bad moments.
In the end, there wasn’t enough consistency to declare a starter.
Quarterbacks Robert Johnson, Alex Mortensen and Cole Barthel wrapped up spring drills with another up-and-down afternoon during Arkansas’ 48-play scrimmage. The quarterbacks left final impressions during their first significant scrimmage work in two weeks, earning mixed reviews in front of an estimated crowd of 10,300.
“Each one of them had opportunities and chances to do things and did,” Wittke said. “Each one of them also there were some things that weren’t quite as good.
“We were pleased with the way we put the ball in the end zone a couple times. A couple nice throws, a couple third downs. We didn’t finish really well in the red zone and that’s disappointing. But it was another good day of evaluation.”
Once again, the 22-year-old Barthel led the quarterbacks statistically.
He completed 2 of 3 passes for 31 yards and 2 touchdowns and led the Hogs to three scores during his first 11 plays. All three possessions came against the third-team defense, but Barthel was error-free in tossing a 22-yard touchdown pass to Cedric Logan and a 9-yarder to fullback Farod Jackson.
The offense scored on Barthel’s first possession on a 40-yard scoring pass from Marcus Monk to tailback Peyton Hillis.
“It’s just statistically (better),” said Barthel, who rushed for a touchdown and threw for another during the first scrimmage on April 2. “You can’t tell much from that.
“I felt comfortable at times and at times, I haven’t felt comfortable. But the stats don’t really matter. I think we all played well today.”
Mortensen was 2 of 5 for 56 yards before his final pass was intercepted in the end zone by safety Randy Kelly on the last play from scrimmage.
Mortensen, who turned in what Wittke described as his best week of the spring, tossed a scrimmage-best, 43-yard completion to receiver Chris Baker to set up the offense’s first touchdown Saturday. Hillis capped the 4-play, 50-yard drive with a one-yard touchdown plunge. It was the first of his three touchdowns.
“The good thing about today is that I had more opportunities to get the ball down the field,” Mortensen said. “That’s always fun as a quarterback.
“Those first two weeks, you’re learning so much it makes you think. It hampers how quickly you’re playing and it hampers your instincts. Now, I can just get out there and play fast and I think that’s why I had a better week.”
Johnson started the scrimmage under center, but couldn’t break through Arkansas’ stingy, first-team defense. The offense managed just 16 yards in 10 plays under Johnson’s leadership and was held scoreless on its first three possessions.
Johnson eventually found some success late in the scrimmage when the offense worked inside the defense’s 20-yard line. His first series ended with a Hillis fumble, but Johnson led Arkansas to a 5-play scoring drive. Hillis busted through the middle of the defense, bounced off would-be tacklers and scored from 10 yards out.
Johnson ended the spring completing 3 of 6 passes for just 6 yards, but coach Houston Nutt said he won’t be evaluated by Saturday alone.
“I think he’s improved since day one,” Nutt said. “I don’t think you go by 25 plays (in a scrimmage). I think you go by the improvement and now it’s important to come back, get those 29 opportunities (in fall practice) and keep building off this.
“Robert’s ahead right now. If you played tonight, he’d go in first just because of the experience. But they all have room for improvement as you saw (Saturday).”
Hillis agreed with Nutt and Wittke’s assessment, believing Johnson has an edge based on his athleticism and knowledge of the system.
“Right now, I’d have to say RoJo’s our guy,” Hillis said. “I think that guys like him, he’s the kind of guy he knows he’s the man and he’s going to step up and be the man. Last year, he knows (former quarterback Matt Jones is) in front of him. This year, he has to step up.
“He’s the number one guy.”
The quarterbacks led the offense to four touchdowns during the scrimmage, but none of them came against defensive coordinator Reggie Herring’s top unit.
The first-team defense turned in the most dominant performance of the day after holding the offense scoreless, limiting it to one first down, collecting 3 1/2 sacks and forcing two turnovers.
Junior Desmond Sims, who moved from linebacker to defensive end during the winter, led the charge with three sacks. Defensive linemen Zach Snider, Keith Jackson and Ernest Mitchell tied for the team lead with 3 1/2 tackles.
Safety Vickiel Vaughn returned Hillis’ fumble 45 yards before being run out of bounds by Johnson. Kelly recorded the game’s only interception.
Said Nutt: “They’re playing harder. I think they’re tougher. We’ve still got a long way to go, but they’ve improved a great deal. I’m proud of them.”
The first-team heat frustrated Arkansas’ offense, at times, and limited the ground game to 95 yards on 32 attempts (2.1 yards a carry). Hillis led all ball carriers with 46 yards on 14 carries. Kyle Dickerson added 32 yards on 9 attempts.