Two Weeks Down, Two To Go

The Morning News/Razorback Central
Posted Aug 22, 2005


FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas cornerback Michael Coe added to his strong preseason by intercepting a pass and returning it 92 yards for a touchdown during Saturday's Fan Day Scrimmage in Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

So did true freshmen tailbacks Felix Jones and Darren McFadden, who sprinted, juked and broke tackles en route to leading the Razorbacks in rushing.

But Arkansas' offense committed too many turnovers, the defense struggled to bring down ball carriers and several key players had inconsistent outings.

In the end, Arkansas learned a little more about itself -- both good and bad -- during Saturday's lengthy scrimmage in front of an estimated crowd of 9,500. As a result, coach Houston Nutt and the Hogs have a better idea of what needs to improve before 72,000 fill the stadium for the season opener against Missouri State on Sept. 3.

"It's amazing after you practice this long and then you put them under a game-like situation, it's amazing how sometimes things change," Nutt said about the scrimmage. "You want them on automatic pilot to do exactly what you've been doing in practice. Sometimes you revert back to some bad habits.

"We made some mistakes (Saturday). We expected that. But there were some good things that happened."

The scrimmage officially wrapped up Arkansas' preseason camp and, with classes beginning today, the Hogs will begin focusing on their Missouri State game plan this week. Arkansas took a day off Sunday for the first time since preseason practices began Aug. 8. The Razorbacks will return to the practice field tonight with less than two weeks until opening kickoff.

And with the season rapidly approaching, here's a review -- both good and bad -- of the first two weeks of practice:

w Arkansas' three-way battle at quarterback ended earlier than expected when Nutt named sophomore Robert Johnson the starter after the first week. The Waco, Texas, native has been sidelined much of the past week because of a groin injury, but Nutt said Johnson won the job based on his experience, improved confidence and ability to lead the offense during preseason practices.

Johnson is Arkansas' only quarterback with experience after completing 10 of 19 passes for 209 yards with three touchdowns and one interception in six appearances last season. But backups Alex Mortensen and Cole Barthel got a chance to earn more snaps in practice with Johnson sidelined and split time during the scrimmage.

They didn't necessarily impress Saturday. But Mortensen said it was valuable work.

"With Robert getting healthy right now, it was good to get reps with the first team," Mortensen said. "The more reps I build, the more confidence I get with those guys. It really helps building chemistry."

w Arkansas must improve tackling and perform better against the run or defensive coordinator Reggie Herring said the Hogs will be in for a long season. The two areas -- along with depth -- are his biggest concerns after two weeks.

The weaknesses were evident during the scrimmage, when McFadden and Jones broke tackles en route to big plays. Herring, who largely played backups, said he didn't really have "anything positive" to say after watching some "sloppy tackling."

"Right now, we're inconsistent," Herring said last Thursday. "I wish I could give you something else. But that's about it. That's where we're at.

"We're an inconsistent defensive football team right now."

Arkansas struggled in both areas last season. The Hogs surrendered an average of 180.3 rushing yards a game, which ranked 82nd in the nation.

w The offense has benefited from the true freshmen tandem of Jones and McFadden. The newcomers led the Hogs in rushing during the scrimmage (79 and 34 yards, respectively) and provided half of the offensive highlights.

"We've been telling you the truth," Nutt said. "They're very, very good.

"I love the way Felix Jones can split a crease. I love the way he runs north so quick. Then McFadden has breakaway speed and showed some elusiveness (Saturday)."

Arkansas has experienced ball carriers like De'Arrius Howard, Peyton Hillis and Dedrick Poole in the backfield, but Jones and McFadden carried the rushing load Saturday. Howard worked with the second team, Hillis was out with a stomach virus and Poole split time at free safety, where he could help the Hogs with depth in 2005.

McFadden and Jones have impressed with their speed and toughness the first two weeks and will be included in Arkansas' offensive plans this season.

w Depth remains a critical concern for the Hogs. Especially on defense where Herring is working with inexperience behind most of his starters.

He is confident first-teamers Pierre Brown, Sam Olajubutu, Darius Vinnett, Vickiel Vaughn, Marcus Harrison, Desmond Sims and Anthony Brown can be counted on this season. But Herring and the Hogs still are looking for dependable backups, especially at key positions like linebacker, safety and defensive end.

That's why Herring sat most of the starters during Saturday's scrimmage.

"We're looking for anybody and anyone that wants to play hard in the next two weeks," Herring said last week.

The offense held its breath the first week after right guard Zac Tubbs sustained a high ankle sprain and remains questionable for the opener. Tyler Morgan has filled in admirably, but the Hogs can't afford injuries up front. The young second-team group of true freshmen Jose Valdez and Colin Tucker, redshirt freshman Jonathan Luigs, sophomore Nate Garner and junior Chase Pressley were solid Saturday.

w Special teams jobs still are undecided at place kicker, punter, punt returner and kick returner.

Seven kickers took their swings during Saturday's scrimmage. Returning starter Chris Balseiro is being pushed by challengers like punter Jeremy Davis and true freshman Stephen Arnold. Davis also is in the running at punter with Jacob Skinner.

"Jeremy has been working on it probably the last week and a half," Nutt said Saturday. "He's cool under pressure. I tell you, he feels like he can make it and he's been pretty consistent. We're going to evaluate pretty hard. He's in the thick of it."

There also are battles for the kick returner spot, where Hillis, Jones, McFadden, Cedric Logan and Cedric Washington are competing for time. Washington, Logan, Jones, Coe and Reggie Fish have gotten work at punt returner.

The Hogs have had problems holding onto the football on punt returns, including Saturday's muff by Logan. Coe has drawn praise for his steady work and the 240-pound Hillis will get a chance to return punts as well this week.



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