State of the Hogs: Football Time

With two-a-days starting in just days, Arkansas faces a critical period with so many young players vying for playing time. Publisher Clay Henry looks at some of the possibilties.

About midway through last football season, I pulled out Arkansas' preseason depth chart. It was almost identical to the one that ran in Hawgs Illustrated that week.

I am not a betting man, but I can comfortably state that I would wager that the one that appeared in our summer magazine six weeks ago will not match the one which appears before the Texas game in about five weeks.

In my mind, UA coaches have a little more than one month to find out about this team. I figure a good number of players from an outstanding recruiting class will work their way into the two-deep chart.

This may be one of the most interesting stretches of practices of the Houston Nutt era. Never before has his coaching staff faced so many critical personnel decisions.

Many of those decisions will take place in the secondary where Bobby Allen and Dave Wommack, secondary coach and defensive coordinator respectively, will try to work in newcomers Michael Grant, Darius Vinnett, Rick Culver, Matterial Richardson, Randy Kelly, Shedrick Johnson, Desmond Williams, D'Nerian Wrighter and Dallas Washington.

But there are many other new faces with a chance to contribute. How about Anthony Brown or Cedric Logan at wideout? Can Ernest Mitchell or Marcus Harrison add depth at defensive tackle? What about Peyton Hillis at fullback or tailback, or even H-back, the hybrid tight end/fullback slot? Maybe Zach Snider or Weston Dacus can lend a hand at linebacker? How about Marc Winston at tight end?

That's just to name a few of the newcomers with a chance to help in the two-deep chart. That's not to say others will be quicker learners and prove too valuable to redshirt.

Ideally, all of the newcomers will redshirt. But this may be the year that the gap between freshmen and returning squadmen is so small that many of the youngest Hogs win significant playing time.

Most of those rookies have been in Fayetteville for a good portion of the summer. They are used to the surroundings, know their way around the locker room, weight room and will not be in shock when practices begin.

Pass skeleton drills, the seven-on-seven workouts that are the summer staple for college programs these days, have been more like regular practices for the Hogs the past several weeks. There have been times they have been 11-on-11 instead of seven-on-seven.

Leaders like Jeb Huckeba, Clarke Moore and Michael Coe on defense and Matt Jones, Steven Harris and De'Arrius Howard on offense have tried to put the newcomers in their spots and coach them on the right moves for the different schemes and plays.

Those who have seen most of the workouts applaud the leadership steps taken by Jones, the senior quarterback most often criticized for a void in those traits.

"I think from what I've heard and seen, Matt now feels comfortable that he's a senior and it's his team," said Roy Wittke, the Hogs' quarterback coach. "Matt is still going to be Matt, but it's obvious that he's a little bit different this year."

Jones will be the offensive catalyst for this team, but who will be his helpers?

It's my guess that Harris, the senior wideout from Hialeah, Fla., will be a big playmaker. He's shown flashes in the past of stepping up to a high level, but injuries have always held him back. He's got the speed (sub 4.4 when he first arrived), the hands and the mental toughness to make big plays.

Jones likes Harris as a go-to man. In the spring of 2003, it appeared that Harris was Jones' favorite target. It was Harris who Jones went to with the fourth-down slant late in the Alabama game last year.

Defensively, there are fewer holes to fill, but it's still unclear as to who will emerge as the big-time playmakers with tackle leaders Caleb Miller and Tony Bua gone.

The most likely candidate there is Huckeba. He might emerge in much in the same way Steve Conley stepped up as a senior in 1995. It took Conley time to mature at end and this is Huckeba's second season there after spending much of his career at linebacker.

The major unknown in all of this is probably who will holdup to the physical stress of two-a-days. Young players fall by the wayside fast in August. Injuries will play a big role this fall, perhaps bigger than usual.

Already, the Hogs are looking for help after James Johnson, listed atop the depth chart at left guard, was lost for the season this week with a serious knee injury. Robert Felton is the likely replacement there, although every backup across the front will get a quick look.

Felton's combination of athletic ability and size reminds many of Shawn Andrews. He passes the eye test, but he's still just a redshirt freshman. Still, it's not the thought of playing Felton that makes for anxious moments for UA coaches. It's the thought of losing more players, and knowing Texas will arrive in the Ozarks on Sept. 11.

Yes, the next five weeks should be plenty of entertainment. It's time to build a football team.

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