Danny Nutt sees a different Mark Pierce as Arkansas begins preseason football practice, and the UA assistant likes what he sees.
"He's much, much different ... for the good," said Danny Nutt, who coaches the Hogs' running backs. "He came into my office the first night back quoting Bible verses. I'd never heard that from him before.
"When he came back, he asked if Jeb Huckeba would be his roommate. I thought that was a good choice. It was Mark's idea, though."
Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt greeted the media at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, and then asked if they would allow him to start the day with a statement from Pierce.
Pierce entered the UA team room, sat down at the podium and took off a visor. He read a brief statement.
"First I'd like to start by saying how wonderful it is to be back with the
team,"Pierce said. "Not a day went by that the players, coaches, and fans weren't on my
mind. As you all know, my Dad passed away in December, and I haven't had
much of an opportunity to spend with my family. My mom recently had
surgery and was in bed rest for two weeks, and I really felt like I needed
to go home for a support factor and to be with her.
"Coach Nutt cares enough about his players that he granted me this
opportunity to go home as long as I needed. Today I'm just thankful to God
that I am back with my teammates and in good health and good condition. I
would really prefer not to be bothered by these issues or have them come
up. I'd really not like to talk about them any further. I'll be happy to
comment on anything else as long as they don't involve my personal
issues. Thank you."
Nutt took over the microphone thereafter, noting, "I want to make a difference in young people's life and that is what it is all about."
At that, Nutt switched the focus to football, and the new class that suited up for the first time Monday afternoon. He noted that his staff underwent a difficult time over the previous year as far as recruiting because of an NCAA investigation, but he was pleased with the result.
"You look at this freshman group, and we have some excellent football players," he said. "You look at that offensive line ... those big guys ... and then guys like Chris Baker, Willie Hordge. I think our staff did it the right way. They didn't take shortcuts. We haven't had one violation. They worked hard and did it the right way."
Nutt praised the senior leadership, especially from George Wilson, Tony Bua, Jimarr Gallon, Bo Lacy and Caleb Miller.
"We have had a great summer," he said. "You look at guys like Bo Lacy. He's in the best shape of his life. He was out there running the conditioning drills at the end yesterday, and he was laughing all the way. It's all about attitude and we have a great attitude right now. We are excited to get going."
If there is a concern with the 2003 Hogs, it lies in the defensive line. There is little depth and the new recruits may not help right away.
"You love what you see in Arrion Dixon, Jeb Huckeba and Justin Scott," Nutt said. "Those three have played a lot of football. We need Elliott Harris to come on and for some of the young ones like Chase Pressley, Jayson Johnson, James Johnson to come on. Scott Davenport is in the equation there, too.
"Because of the lack of depth there, we had to ask Brandon Holmes to go back to defensive end. He'll help with his speed and quickness. We also hope we can get some help from the young ones like Jeremy Harrell and Keith Jackson, but that's asking a lot from a freshman."
Nutt was asked if he was more relaxed compared to how he felt at this time last year.
"Yes, and the reason is that there are a lot less issues on the table as far as off-the-field problems," he said. "Remember, last year we started this thing by talking about Ken Hamlin and an off-the-field incident. Knock on wood, this has been a wonderful summer. Part of the reason is all these seniors. George Wilson and the seniors have taken ownership of this team. It's a big group of seniors, bigger than that group with Anthony Lucas and Clint Stoerner. I know this team is in good hands with those seniors."
Nutt said he liked what he saw from the many veterans in the Hogs' first workout. He noted that Tony Bua, out in the spring with surgery, was solid at free safety.
"That's a great feeling what happened yesterday in practice ... not one deep ball down the middle of the field," Nutt said. "We didn't have anything over the safety's head. Tony had a good, good start. And, we saw Jimarr Gallon knock down two balls and strip another away from a wideout. We have some good candidates there."
Bua said he was still trying to settle in at free safety after three seasons at outside linebacker.
"I tried to learn the whole (play) book this summer so I could help everyone else with their spot, too," he said. "I think I know it. I already had the stuff up front down. Now, I know the secondary spots, too."
Secondary coach Bobby Allen was also pleased with Bua's start.
"Tony did real well," Allen said. "We know he will bring a physical presence to that position and play hard. What we want to see this week is if we can count on him to be in the right spot each time and to understand the position like a Ken Hamlin or a Kenoy Kennedy. We had steady play there the last few years. What we also need to see from Tony is if he is going to stay healthy."
One of the obvious changes in practice from past seasons is the focus on the field.
"It's been more of a business-like approach and a sense of urgency," Nutt said. "You don't hear any talk out there. I liked the sense of urgency. We hadn't seen that as much with other groups as we did Monday with this group. Now, we won't to see if we can keep that focus. Will we have it 4-5 days from now?
Nutt is pleased with his quarterbacks, young and old.
"Matt threw it very, very well yesterday," Nutt said. "When he's fresh, we've seen that he can make plays. It's obvious that he's become much better as far as huddle presence. And, he threw two balls yesterday ... one to Richard Smith and one to George Wilson ... that were great, great throws. It's obvious that we can't make him a fulltime wideout. He's too good and he's won a lot of games for us. He's the man who can take us back to Atlanta.
"In Ryan Sorahan, we have someone who has persevered. He started slow (Monday), then he got it going. We want to see if he can be consistent. I'll say we know we can't take Matt away from quarterback.
"What we see is that Matt's intangibles have really improved. He's improved, yes, he has ... it's like night and day. I wish you could see a tape of him in the huddle from his freshman year until now. His personality in the huddle has improved. He's got 10 sets of eyes on him in the huddle and all of them know he is going to take them to something great and make big-time plays."
Freshman QBs Landon Leach and Robert Johnson drew the praise of their head coach, too.
"We have two very good freshman," Nutt said. "Landon did a great job yesterday after he settled down. He has so much knowledge and you love the way he handles himself in the huddle. He has great presence. Robert is a smooth, smooth athlete and has a great arm. We have two guys there in Landon and Robert that you know can play the game of football. They are going to be very good quarterbacks and can play in this league."
The Hogs have new helmets with a shiny, metallic finish.
The first defensive line consists of Jeb Huckeba (from left), Arrion Dixon, Elliott Harris and Justin Scott.
Shawn Andrews visits with a TV reporter.
Photos by Clay Henry
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