State of the Hogs: Wideouts

Bret Bielema is leaning heavily on 20 seniors. That's the key to his first season, especially at wide receiver where Javontee Herndon, Julian Horton and Demetrius Wilson are tops in Michael Smith's meeting room.

The success of the 2013 Arkansas football team may be pinned to some new faces, like Brandon Allen at quarterback. Jonathan Williams may be the star at running back. Perhaps Alex Collins makes a splash there, too, as a true freshman.

But, it is probably a safe bet to start with 20 seniors, just like Bret Bielema did when he began the task of starting his football program in the Ozarks.

That's perhaps why I didn't cringe at the thought of the Hogs starting fall camp with Mekale McKay's defection as the top wideout. I had already thought of that position in terms of what the three senior starters could bring to the table. Javontee Herndon, Julian Horton and Demetrius Wilson were atop the depth chart, as you'd expect experienced seniors.

Those were the men offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and wideout coach Michael Smith talked the most about last spring. Nothing changed after practice Tuesday.

"The three seniors came out ready to lead," Smith said. "Those are the guys making the catches. I will also say that D'Arthur Cowan had a good day today. We targeted him 15 times and he made 15 catches. Cornell Hatcher and D'Arthur Cowan are having good starts to camp, too. I think they, along with the three seniors, are going to allow us to have a rotation of six to seven."

One of the interesting questions about Arkansas football might concern the future of the wide receiver position since the top three players in Smith's meeting room are seniors. What about after Herndon, Horton and Wilson are done?

That's not a concern here, because it's clear that Smith can recruit. His past suggests the Hogs will have wideouts. He had them at Kansas State. If you can attract them to Manhattan, Kan., then coach them up there, he's probably going to be fine in Fayetteville, too, a little closer to the fertile grounds of his recruiting territory.

Smith seems to be among the most popular assistants with Arkansas players. They gravitate to him. They like him and that's part of his brilliance on the recruiting trails in Texas and Louisiana. He'll have wideouts in the Bielema system.

I was actually excited when Bielema lost his first wideout hire, Miami's George McDonald. When the offensive coordinator job opened at Syracuse and McDonald bolted, there was a quick move to Smith, with more natural recruiting ties close to Fayetteville than McDonald.

I covered Smith years ago when he set records at Kansas State. He was known as perhaps the toughest wideout in the Big Eight Conference. An over the middle guy, he was also a superb blocker. His players at K-State developed the same way, both when he coached running backs and wideouts.

One of the thoughts when I heard McKay was gone might not be accurate. But I couldn't help but think maybe he didn't like the physical aspect of what wideouts will do going forward at Arkansas. Block.

Those at the top of the depth chart are now good blockers. They have to be strong at the point of attack. I've always imagined Hatcher fitting in that role, a physical blocker as well as a man after the catch. Asked about physical leaders, Smith sounded like a broken record.

"Those three seniors, they are making a move," Smith said. "I keep saying their names when you ask questions about this or that. I love what I see from them after the summer and I can say that about Hatcher and Cowan. I think Eric Hawkins is having a good start, too. We held him out a little in the spring to ask him to take care of academics and he did that. That issue is over and Hawkins is doing well. He's buckled down."

Expect the punt return man to come from one or two of that group, perhaps along with Nate Holmes. All have had experience in that department at other stops.

"We've looked at all of those guys in that situation," Smith said. "We've got a good group." Indeed, don't worry about Smith's meeting room. There is one less guy there, but it sure sounds like the Hogs closed ranks nicely.

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