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State of the Hogs:
When Arkansas starts spring practice on March 7, there may not be a single player available who started on offense against LSU.
Before you think the Razorback offense is in dire straits, listen to Arkansas quarterback coach Roy Wittke.
"We've talked as a staff and we've all heard the same things from a lot of people about losing so much experience," said Wittke, who also serves as the passing game coordinator.
"That might be how some (outside the program) look at it, but our staff thinks it's kind of exciting. Everyone thinks about the negative side of losing so much experience, but it's an exciting time to start over with so many eager players. We all believe as coaches that these young players are going to develop into quality players."
The Hogs have to replace the entire offensive line, plus an outstanding blocker at tight end. Both starting wideouts will be gone, too. The void is not so great in the offensive backfield where Matt Jones, DeCori Birmingham and Brandon Kennedy have all started and played extensive snaps, but Jones might not be available at quarterback this spring and that's where we'll focus today.
Because Jones is playing basketball this winter, he will likely miss at least the first week of spring football and possibly more if the Hogs make it as far as the National Invitation Tournament. Even if the basketball team is done after the SEC tournament, Jones might be hard pressed to get his iffy shoulder warmed up to throw much in spring drills.
"We aren't going to risk that shoulder just to try to get him 15-20 throws in the spring game, that's for sure," said Wittke. "I'm approaching spring like Matt is not going to be there at quarterback at all. Anything he can do is a bonus. It is not worth it to put him at risk. We made a commitment this football season to have him healthy at the end, and I don't think we want him to jump right into spring ball without proper preparation (for his shoulder). We all know that Matt's shoulder is a concern and it always will be something we think about when we do our planning."
So that brings us to the other options. Wittke likes them. For the spring, they are Robert Johnson, Landon Leach and walk-on Rhett Lashlee. Alex Mortenson, pledged to sign with the Hogs on Wednesday, will join that group in August.
Wittke's challenge is to find someone to take the pressure off of Matt's shoulder by next fall. Hopefully, that would be for both practices and games, just as Ryan Sorahan did last year when he took the bulk of the practice throws and also took some game snaps. There has been some public comments from head coach Houston Nutt about using Jones at wide receiver and as a punt returner next season, but not unless someone can handle quarterback in his absence.
"That all depends on the development of the young quarterbacks," Wittke said. "That's the bottom line. We arrived at a workable solution with Ryan last year. I think we can with Robert, Landon and Rhett. But that remains to be seen."
So now we have the most important issue of the spring. Which of those will emerge as Jones' partner at quarterback? And, can they be more than a practice partner for Jones?
There were signs during bowl workouts that it will be Johnson, a 6-3, 205-pound redshirt freshman from Waco with quick feet and a strong arm. He dazzled at times running scout team stuff as Missouri's Brad Smith.
Wittke has high regard for Johnson's ability, but also notes that Leach, the 6-1, 190-pound Russellville product, will contend when his surgically-repaired throwing shoulder is fully healed. There are signs that Leach will be able to do more than expected this spring, but will probably sit out all contact work. Leach is ahead of schedule after his surgery wasn't nearly as invasive as expected.
"I have no illusions that he'll be in our live work, but he may be able to participate in our individual drills and our one-on-one segments," Wittke said of Leach. "For sure, he'll do some things like our footwork drills and be in all meetings. He'll benefit from a lot of things this spring no matter if he can throw or not. Throwing will be a bonus. The feedback I'm getting from him right now is that he might get to (throw some)."
Wittke is fascinated with the prospects for both Johnson and Leach. They are different, but both have abilities that fit more in the middle range between say Jones (more of a runner) and Sorahan (more of a passer).
"Before anyone should get too excited about Robert and Landon, you do need to remember that neither has done it in an SEC game," Wittke said. "They have to get it done on the field, but they are certainly going to get an opportunity to show what they can do this spring."
Without question, Wittke did sound excited about his pups.
"It's easy to talk about them together because there are some interesting contrasts," Wittke said. "Robert has some physical advantages. He's a little bigger, a little stronger, faster and has a stronger arm. Because of his speed, he would have a chance to do some of the things Matt did in the running game, but has a different style than Matt.
"Robert has a better first step than Matt, but Matt probably has better top end speed than Robert. Robert is more explosive in a shorter distance. One of Robert's real strengths, and this comes from Don Decker, our strength coach, is his lower body strength. His legs are very strong.
"Landon is smaller and may not throw the ball quite as hard as Robert. But in the four to five weeks we saw him before his shoulder injury, Landon did some things in the throwing game that showed he has a great knack of getting rid of the football on time and with an anticipation of what is going to happen down the field. He was the best of all our quarterbacks at that, better than Ryan or anyone else. He was extremely accurate. And while Robert has a stronger arm, Landon doesn't lack. He can make all the throws that are necessary. And as Landon gets bigger and stronger, his arm strength will get even better."
Anticipation, Wittke said, is the great equalizer in the passing game for quarterbacks.
"If I get the ball out there quicker than you do, then I don't have to have an arm quite as strong," Wittke said. "That's Landon.
"What is really exciting is that both have the appearance of being tremendous leaders. Landon is just a natural. He is the stereotypical quarterback leader. He has that quarterback personality. People are drawn to him. Robert is a little different. People are drawn to him because of the dynamic way he performs. He has a great presence, too. With Robert, because of some of the things he's done on the field in practice, our players have great respect for him and his abilities. He's made some plays that make you go, ‘WOW!' He's earned respect."
The way both work and carry themselves on and off the field has impressed their coach, too.
"They are tremendous around their teammates," Wittke said. "Both have also done a great job for us recruiting."
Several of the Hogs' top committed players have told reporters that Johnson and Leach hosted their visits.
Wittke notes that their abilities will lend to some changes in the Hogs' offense for the coming season, although some talents at other spots might influence those changes just as much.
"I wouldn't say that we will be changing, but more it's just normal growth in an offense that you see from year to year," Wittke said. "Some of the things Robert and Landon can do will be part of that, but some things might be different because of new people up front. Overall, we have a chance to be more athletic in the offensive line. That athletic ability will allow us to do some different things and depending on who emerges at quarterback, that might allow for some other things, too.
"One thing I would say is that both Robert and Landon are a little closer to being able to do everything you saw in our offense. You'd think we might start to grow a little towards the middle of the spectrum between what we had with Matt and then Ryan.
"I don't think you should stop with the people up front and at quarterback. I think if you look at our running backs, we might have a little better ability to catch the ball at tailback and fullback. DeCori Birmingham and Dedrick Poole are very good receivers. At wide receiver, we should be much, much bigger and probably faster, too."
All of that will emerge in the spring.
"We have to identify the players who are going to be on the field this fall from what they do in the spring," Wittke said. "The spring is when you develop that team identity. As guys prove worthy of being on the field, then you fit what you are doing to their strengths."
That's the fun part of coaching.