Young Guns Ready To Fire

FAYETTEVILLE -- One of defensive end Jeb Huckeba's earliest memories as a starter was the tongue-lashing he received from former teammate Ken Hamlin.

The senior said the verbal reprimand was well-deserved during Arkansas' 30-12 home loss to Alabama in 2002. A sophomore making his third career start, Huckeba blew an assignment on third down, leaving Crimson Tide tailback Shaud Williams open for a big gain.

"It went for like 30 yards, and it was my fault," Huckeba said. "I came back and heard it in the huddle (from Hamlin) and then heard it from (defensive coordinator Dave) Wommack on the sideline. You live and learn.

"But it kind of got me down on myself."

Now one of nine seniors, Huckeba said he doesn't plan to give some of his younger teammates -- like true freshman defensive end Marcus Harrison -- an earful if they make youthful mistakes. But when the Hogs open the season tonight against New Mexico State in Reynolds Razorback Stadium, he said a team freckled with inexperienced players will be counted on to grow up fast.

Tonight's game will give Arkansas its first chance to closely examine two off-season areas of concern -- an inexperienced offensive line and young secondary. It also will serve as an introduction to college football for wide-eyed teenagers like Harrison, receiver Marcus Monk and tailback Peyton Hillis.

"We've talked about it every day," said Harrison, who will become Arkansas' first offensive or defense true freshman to start an opener under seventh-year Arkansas coach Houston Nutt. "Jeb, Elliott (Harris) and Titus (Peebles) and the rest of the seniors, (Arrion Dixon), they say, 'It's another ballgame.' They said I need to get in my books because on the field they won't be able to help me.

"I'll probably be in the playbook Friday night still studying. That's my goal right there, to make sure I know everything."

Offensive line coach Mike Markuson said his brand-new group of right tackle Zac Tubbs, right guard Gene Perry, center Kyle Roper, left guard Stephen Parker and left tackle Tony Ugoh is tired of the classroom work. Markuson said the only way to seriously improve four first-time starters, three of whom have yet to see significant snaps, is to let them play.

The same goes for Arkansas' secondary, where safeties Vickiel Vaughn and Lerinezo Robinson will team with untested cornerbacks Michael Coe and junior college transfer Darius Vinnett.But the biggest question marks comes after that as four newcomers and one redshirt freshman assume important second-team roles.

"That first few minutes when you run out there is going to be overwhelming, especially for the young guys," said starting tight end Jared Hicks. "But that's why you chose Arkansas, to come to a big-time school, big-time conference.

"They have to remember that mistakes are going to happen, even to the older guys. Don't hang your head on the next play. That's what will separate the younger guys and whether or not they're going to play for us."

Arkansas can't afford a myriad of miscues against the Aggies.

New Mexico State has 18 seniors on its roster and plenty of experience in hostile environments like Texas, Oregon State, South Carolina Georgia and Kansas State. The Aggies return 10 defensive starters and offensive leaders like quarterback Buck Pierce, running back Tony Joseph and linemen Nick Cole and Steve Subia.

Linebacker Jimmy Cottrell said New Mexico State is confident after giving Arkansas fits last November. The Aggies trailed 21-17 with 8 minutes, 8 seconds remaining in the third quarter until quarterback Matt Jones broke the game open with a 62-yard touchdown gallop in the Hogs' 48-20 win.

"We've been in this situation before," Cottrell said. "It's not quite as frightening as it once was. We'll have some (new) guys out there, so we'll have to settle them down. We just have to remind them that it's 100 yards no matter where you line up.

"I think this is a great measure of our team. There has to come a point where you step up and beat the bigger schools and turn the corner."

The Aggies seem to be getting close, which is why Nutt expects this to be one of the toughest openers since he returned to Fayetteville in 1998.

The Razorbacks -- who have won six consecutive openers under Nutt -- got their biggest scare in 2001, when a team loaded with youth needed big moments from inexperienced players like cornerback Lawrence Richardson and quarterback Ryan Sorahan to orchestrate a come-from-behind 14-10 win. None of the Hogs' talented 2001 signing class started that game, but 12 often wide-eyed newcomers saw playing time in backup roles.

For now, Vinnett and Harrison are the only two newbies holding starting jobs after four weeks on campus. But much like the 2001 season, several more - including Hillis, Monk, center Jonathan Luigs, defensive tackle Fred Bledsoe and cornerbacks Matteral Richardson and Michael Grant -could be counted on in crucial moments.

"I'm anxious to see a lot of new faces that have never played before," Nutt said. "You're talking about 10 brand-new starters on offense, eight, nine brand-new starters on defense. I really think they've had great camps.

"But you really, truly don't know until you play."

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