For those that were scared off by the word that practice was closed, at the outset I must say that it is sad that you missed a beautiful morning in Reynolds Razorback Stadium. With bright sunshine greeting the Hogs, Houston Nutt elected to take his team outside after warming up in the Walker Pavilion.
"We made the decision this morning to go outside," Nutt told reporters as his team was stretching. "It's too nice of a day and the field has dried well enough that we will have good footing for the players."
Matt Jones and Ryan Sorahan each had solid performances with both figuring in two touchdowns. Actually, Jones led two TD possessions, and caught Sorahan's TD lob over the middle, a virtual jump ball that Jones snared on a fake bubble screen. The other TD drive for Sorahan came when he handed off to De'Arrius Howard on a 50-yard sprint on the opening play of his turn at QB. They both worked extensively against the No. 1 defense behind the No. 1 offensive line in hopes of giving them similar conditions.
Jones caught two passes for 29 yards. George Wilson led all receivers with three catches for 50 yards. DeCori Birmingham, Carlos Ousley and Jared Hicks each had three catches and a TD apiece. Hicks bruised his hand in the scrimmage. Fellow tight end Jason Peters didn't participate because of a shin bruise.
Jones was 7 of 11 passing for 73 yards. Sorahan was 6 of 15 for 55 yards. Neither threw an interception. De'Arrius Howard rushed six times for 74 yards, and Cedric Cobbs rushed nine times for 44 yards. Both scored one TD.
Defensively, senior linebacker Caleb Miller led the team with 10 tackles and a sack in the scrimmage. Jimarr Gallon and Brandon Holmes added five tackles each.
The 82-play scrimmage had plenty of offensive highlights, but also had stretches which were dominated by the defense. However, the first defense gave up two TDs to the first offense as Nutt went "good on good" for an extended amount of time.
"I thought we had a good day," Nutt said. "There was a lot of crisp contact. We probaby got some shoulders boogered up ... Dedrick Poole, Bo Mosley, Michael Coe and some others. We are getting better, but we still have a lot of things we can work on and improve.
"One of the highlights was our pass protection. We have really worked hard on that. One of the things that has helped there is we are getting rid of the ball quicker."
The most interesting aspect of the day happened on the sideline when Don Decker spent 30 minutes applying the discipline to Mark Pierce for arriving 30 minutes late. Decker had Pierce do belly flops the length of the field twice, then crab the length of the field and then do continuous side rolls as if he was putting out a fire. Pierce lost his breakfast several times during his time out session.
"He got here way late," Nutt said of Pierce. "We were already out here when he arrived. He missed our meetings this morning."
Pierce did get into a series at the end of the day after regaining his sense of balance after all the side-to-side rolls. De'Arrius Howard tried to console Pierce after the big fullback had thrown up a couple of times, but came away laughing.
"I went over to offer him some water," Howard said. "He is my teammate and I care for him. He missed up real bad this morning, but I wanted to make sure he knew we still loved him. I tried to get him to laugh when he asked if I wanted to do some rolls with him. I just told him that my momma always told me not to get my school clothes dirty and that got a smile from him."
Howard, who benefits from Pierce's solid blocking, did more laughing than Pierce. Howard fell over backwards in giggles after that little meeting with the dizzy Pierce.
Howard had the most awesome run of the day, as 50-yarder on the morning's sixth possession. He took a handoff and powered over right guard, blasting safety Jimarr Gallon about 4 yards across the line and sailing the rest of the way untouched.
Jones produced many of the other offensive highlights, although some of them came with Sorahan at quarterback when the 6-6 Jones hauled in his passes.
"I will say that the last two or three days, Matt has made some sensational catches," Sorahan said. "I know that there are times when I just throw it up for his back shoulder and no one else is going to get it but him."
However, Jones had the most spectacular throw of the day, a perfect bullet to Jared Hicks between defenders on a 6-yard TD play late in the day. Hicks was in the corner of the end zone and Jones' throw whizzed past a linebacker and between two defensive backs in the best example of the spring that his shoulder is sound.
Quarterback coach Roy Wittke thought Jones has thrown several impressive passes over the past week, and changed his mind on his ability as a passer.
"I must say that one thing I'm surprised about is that he is a more natural quarterback than I thought when I came here and what I was led to believe," Wittke said. "He's got more ability as a quarterback than I gave him credit for. He's got good feet and I've seen this week that he can put some heat on the ball.
"Of course, I've seen him do the things everyone else said about him ... the spontaneous things that require natural ability and a spontaneous feel. He showed some of that early in the scrimmage today. He got flushed and it looked like he was going to run. When the coverage came up, he dumped the ball over the rush to the tight end. It was only about a 4-yard pass, just a little lob, but it went for 15 yards.
"The great ones ... the Steve Youngs, Michael Vicks and Donovan McNabb have the ability to move with their feet and then make something happen with their arms. Matt has that. What you want to make sure is that they maintain control and don't just rely on their feet. I see Matt doing that."
Jones caught a 20-yard TD throw from Sorahan that drew praise from Wittke.
"As you guys know, Matt just is a playmaker," he said. "I know you guys get tired of hearing it, but that's the best way to describe him, whether he's at quarterback or wideout. Ryan came back after that throw to him and just said, 'Coach, I saw he had one-on-one and it was a mismatch. You just throw it up.' And, that's what he did and it's the right play."
Sorahan said, "We had the fake bubble screen. I had to sell it with one hard pump and that left Matt alone with a smaller corner. I knew he was the only one who was going to get that ball. You just lay it up there. The last few days, he's made some ... well, just sensational catches ... one-handed. He amazes all of us."
Jones said he's having a blast this spring playing both quarterback and wideout. Clearly, he's enjoyed this week, throwing when he felt like it, and playing wideout the rest of the time, showing that both his shoulder and knee, rehabbed in January and February, are much better than they were last fall.
"I think my knee is fine," he said. "I feel great there. I just needed some time off to get it right and playing basketball wasn't going to help that. The shoulder ... I could have played basketball, but I was going to have to do two hours of rehab a day and it would have been tough to do that playing basketball. I did the right thing."
Wittke has let Jones pick his spot for throwing the ball in practice.
"I have trust in him, and the good thing is that he's now to the point that he's got enough confidence that he's starting to really test it ... really try to put some zip on the ball at times," Wittke said. "Part of it is getting in a competitive situation and just forgetting about it. That's tough. If you have had a sore shoulder, sometimes it's tough to reach back and just try to put something on it. You don't know if you can.
"I've been on him a little about going ahead and seeing what he can do. I think it's fine, and now I think he thinks it's okay. His rehab has really helped him. The good thing about it, when he feels his shoulder has had enough, he just goes over to wide receiver and jumps right in. It's been a great situation this spring because it's also enabled Ryan to get some more work."
Wittke said the aspect that he's pounded on both quarterbacks the most has to do with their tempo.
"We want them to play faster physically, and mentally," Wittke said. "It's about making decisions more quickly. We have worked with Ryan about shortening his release. He has a really long release. He's done that. He's just got a long motion. Matt has gotten better there, too. There are times they just need to get rid of it in a hurry and they have done that better this week.
"And, we want quicker decisions. We want them to play faster. They are starting to understand that and make decisions and move on."
Wittke said a point of emphasis this spring has been the mechanics of the ball fakes, in both the running and passing game.
"We have done a lot of research as a staff on some new things as far as ball fakes, and we are really emphasizing all of it," Wittke said. "I think we've made progress in our ball handling, but we have a long way to go.
"What I've tried to show them is how the ball fakes help take a defender out of a play. Usually, it's the second line of defense, something they don't see until they see it on film. They can influence a defender both on run plays and on play-action."
Wittke said the Hogs' tight end package, added by Wittke, has plenty of influence plays in the various play-action passes that require strong fakes by the quarterback.
"We want to show the linebackers the ball, and make them honor the fake to the tailbacks," he said. "You do that to get those tight ends a half step. It's a big part of what we do. I think they understand that and have done well with that so far. What they haven't begun to execute are the play fakes after handoffs. If they continue their movement like it's a passing play, they can influence another defender. They haven't done that as well as I'd like and they need to improve that portion of their fakes. They can really help themselves with those fakes and we've been on them hard about it."
Jones said, "I think what I've learned is to see it and react, and not worry about it. You can't sit there and wait. I think it's about knowing that you just move on and forget about it. You are going to make some mistakes. I think that is what I've learned the most this spring."
Sorahan's assessment was similar.
"You can tell we have more experience everywhere," Sorahan said. "The first thing we've worked on every day is to play faster. That's about decision making more than anything."
Defensively, Nutt thought the Hogs had a good day with Chase Pressley, Wes Murphy, Jeb Huckeba and Vickiel Vaughn showing up to make plays. Pressley returned a batted pass thrown by Cedric Washington 49 yards to the 1-yard line to highlight the defense. (Most thought Pressley scored, but the referee trailed the play by 20 yards and spotted the ball at the 1-yard line to stun almost everyone.)
"That was a great play by Chase," Nutt said. "We've got some young linemen like Chase, Jayson Johnson, Reggie Banks and Jeb Huckeba that are coming on. Jeb has played, but end is a new position. One thing you see from Jeb is that he is so quick to the ball and playing so hard. I think he's still learning, but he's impressive in the way he runs to the ball."
Nutt said it was still too early to tell if the two-headed quarterback would return this fall.
"I'd like to see it, but we haven't made that decision yet," he said. "It looks like Ryan and Matt are working well together. I think that is a dangerous combination to have them both out there. We just have to wait and see."
The focus on the spring has been to improve pass protection and the passing game in general, but the scrimmage showcased the running game.
"The running game looked better," Nutt said. "I thought guys like Mark Bokermann, Dan Doughty and Jerry Reith had good days. And, you know that Bo Lacy is our leader there. He's been solid every day and he's providing great leadership. We held Shawn (Andrews) out and Zac Tubbs did well. He had one pass protection bust early, but was good otherwise.
"It was good also to get a lot of film on Gene Perry and Tony Ugoh. We will get to evaluate them after they got so many plays today. But it's that way for a lot of guys. We'll get to evaluate our free safeties, Vickiel Vaughn and Jimarr Gallon. Those guys showed up some, but we'll have to look at the film to see how they did overall."