Arkansas wide receiver Keon Hatcher refers to the moments as “little setbacks” and experienced one of them in the second quarter of last April’s Red-White Game.
The veteran pulled in a pass from quarterback Brandon Allen near the goal line on the first-team offense’s second possession of the scrimmage. As Hatcher turned toward the end zone, though, defensive back Ryder Lucas got just enough of the ball to knock it out of his grasp.
Hatcher stopped short of classifying the incompletion as a drop, but was still disappointed with the result. It wasn’t the type of early impression one of Arkansas’ key players wanted to make in front of a crowd eager to see the passing game’s progress under offensive coordinator Dan Enos. But Arkansas receivers coach Michael Smith said Hatcher’s response – two touchdown catches – was more important.
“That’s the thing,” Smith said. “It used to bother him and it would bother him for a quarter or the rest of the game. What I tried to explain to him was, ‘Hey, you’re going to drop some balls. I don’t want you to go out there and drop two or three a game, but you can’t be that hard on yourself. Things happen.’”
Hatcher continues to take Smith’s message to heart as he prepares for his senior season as the unquestioned leader of Arkansas’ young receiving corps. The former Owasso (Okla.) High star was plagued by untimely drops early in his career, but earned the respect of teammates and Arkansas coach Bret Bielema after catching a team-high 43 passes for 558 yards and 6 touchdowns as a junior.
They all believe Hatcher is capable of contributing even more in 2015, too, as Arkansas aims for more production from its wide receivers in Enos’ offense. Hatcher is determined to prove it once again.
“I feel like when big situations come up, they’re going to look at me to go make the play,” Hatcher said. “I feel like I can do that and I am going to do that. Last year, they said I was coming in as the leading guy and I felt that as well. I had that little setback against Auburn the first game with the dropped ball. But other than that, I feel like I had a pretty solid year last year.”
That “little setback” was a dropped pass on a deep ball from Allen – a critical mistake – in Arkansas’ season-opening 45-21 loss to the Tigers. The moment seemed to plague Hatcher for the rest of the game, but proved he could be a dependable outlet for the offense the next week by making big plays in the early minutes of Arkansas’ rout of Nicholls State.
Of course, Hatcher, like the rest of Arkansas’ passing attack, went on to endure plenty of ups and downs throughout the rest of the season. But he was able to carry some much-needed momentum into the offseason after catching a touchdown pass in each of Arkansas’ final three games, including a 5-yard reception late in the third quarter of the 31-7 win against Texas in the Texas Bowl.
“I think it was very important for him to finish the season the way he did last year,” Smith said. “He played the way our team was playing at the end of the year. From a confidence standpoint for Keon, it showed him that he can be that intricate part of our offense.”
It’s the role Hatcher imagined when he signed with Arkansas in Feb. 2012. He just had no idea the opportunity would come in an offense that wasn’t built around big-play receivers. Hatcher, who was a member Bobby Petrino’s final signing class, expected to play his career in a pass-happy attack.
That changed with Petrino’s motorcycle accident, leaving Hatcher to begin his career with the sour taste of a 4-8 season under interim coach John L. Smith. The offense the past two seasons has been nothing like he expected either. But Hatcher said that has proven to be a good thing as he worked to become an all-around receiver, catching passes, making plays and serving as a valuable blocker in the run game.
“I thought we were going to be throwing the ball like crazy,” Hatcher said. “But the way I looked at it is, freshman year, I learned one offense. Coach B comes and I learned another offense. And this offense is more pro-style. So if I learn this here, it will be an easy transition to the NFL by learning and stuff like that. I just feel like knowing them all was good for me.”
Hatcher is confident there will be added opportunities for Arkansas’ receivers to pull in passes in the system Enos installed in the spring. But Hatcher said it will be up to the group to accomplish it and is shouldering the responsibility of making sure they’re ready to make plays.
He has served as a mentor for younger players like Jared Cornelius, Damon Mitchell and Jojo Robinson during the offseason. Those three, along with older receivers like Drew Morgan, Eric Hawkins and Cody Hollister, are expected to join Hatcher as the foundation of the group in 2015.
Bielema labeled the receivers as the most-improved unit throughout spring practices and Hatcher said they’ll take the compliment. But the group also understands it is still viewed as one of Arkansas’ question marks as the Razorbacks try to take another step in their progression under Bielema.
“We feel like we have a lot to prove, but we keep that to ourselves and we continue to work,” Hatcher said. “I feel like we know what’s to come, we’ve just got to keep our head down and keep grinding.
Hatcher has done his part in the offseason, improving his footwork and releases off the line of scrimmage. He also reported only two drops throughout the spring. Hatcher showed his dedication in other ways as well, returning from an early-spring knee injury ahead of schedule.
No one would’ve chided Hatcher for easing his way through the month. In fact, Arkansas was careful with veterans like Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins. But Hatcher didn’t want to miss much time so he accelerated his return to the practice field, making another impression on Bielema and Smith.
“He wanted to be out there,” Bielema said. “We tried to hold him a little bit, but he wanted to be out there so bad. I think obviously we’re a much better offense with him in there. He shows great leadership in the huddle. … He’s really become a go-to guy as far as I think for BA to say if he’s open and the route is there, the read is there, he’s going to hit him without a doubt.”
Allen’s confidence in the receiver was evident after Hatcher couldn’t hold onto what would’ve been a 25-yard touchdown catch in the first half of the spring game.
He didn’t hesitate in looking Hatcher’s way once again, connecting on a well-timed deep ball for a 65-yard touchdown pass. Hatcher had Allen’s eyes around the goal line once again late in the first half, pulling in a 14-yard touchdown catch on a slant route.
Smith said it was an impressive response. One he has come to expect from Hatcher. He’s also confident the growth of Arkansas’ No. 1 receiver will be evident throughout his final season as well.
“I think he has come light years,” Smith said. “We all have those guys that we get for three or four years, but watching his maturation process in the three or four years we’ve been together has been phenomenal. That’s part of him growing. Keon is a very mature kid off the field also. He does things right. He understands how we want things done. He does it and he does it well.”
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