Passing Grade

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas coach Houston Nutt has heard plenty of criticism about his passing offense, which finished at the bottom of the Southeastern Conference standings the past three seasons.

But Nutt and the Razorbacks are perched atop the conference after two weeks.

Behind quarterback Matt Jones and a group of talented receivers, Arkansas' passing offense has improved in 2003 and is averaging 305 yards a game. There's no guarantee they'll stay there, but the Hogs are off to a better start after finishing last in the SEC in 2001 (146.6 yards), 2002 (134.6) and 2003 (189.4).

Receiver Steven Harris said much of the improvement can be attributed to Jones' gradual growth as a passer. It also helps that the senior has a variety of weapons to choose from.

"We've grown over the years to the point we are now and I think it's going to continue even after I leave," Harris said. "We've added receivers and have gotten more in sync with (quarterback) Matt (Jones).

"We have the ability to be very, very productive."

Arkansas completed six passes of 20 yards or more in the 22-20 loss to Texas, including a 50-yarder to tailback Dedrick Poole and a 46-yard gain to receiver Chris Baker. Baker grabbed a 74-yard touchdown pass -- the SEC's longest this season -- from backup quarterback Robert Johnson against New Mexico State.

Jones has completed 26 of 43 passes for 444 yards, spreading the ball to receivers, tight ends and running backs. He said the offense hasn't made dramatic changes, but has developed plenty of big-play threats in the passing game.

"We're definitely using a variety of guys to get them the ball, get them in open spaces to make plays," Jones said. "Any time a receiver is out there we feel like he can catch the ball and make somebody miss and go."

That should help against SEC opponents, who have packed defenders in the box to challenge Jones' arm the past two seasons. But the Hogs, who average 198 rushing yards a game and are second in the SEC in total offense (503 yards), believe they'll win conference games with their passing offense.

"I think the diversity with this group is making a difference," Harris said. "Maybe we were one way in years past and didn't really vary from that. Now we have different types of guys out there.

"All of us are going to contribute and hopefully it's going to help us win games."

Arkansas' game against Louisiana-Monroe on Saturday isn't televised, but the Hogs will return to the tube on Sept. 25 against Alabama.

CBS announced Monday it will broadcast the Alabama game, which will be played in Reynolds Razorback Stadium, and set kickoff for 2:30 p.m. It'll be Arkansas' 13th appearance on CBS under Nutt.

Three Razorbacks games were televised by CBS Sports last season, including their 34-31, two-overtime win in Tuscaloosa. The other two were losses to Florida (33-28 on Oct. 18) and at LSU (55-24 on Nov. 28).

Three Louisiana-Monroe players -- starting tailback Kyle Payne (Junction City High), starting safety Chris Harris (Little Rock J.A. Fair) and backup cornerback Jaron James (Little Rock Hall) -- will return to their home state when the Indians meet Arkansas in War Memorial Stadium.

Payne had a productive freshman season in 2003, leading the Indians with 976 rushing yards and 6 touchdowns and garnering Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year honors. James, a senior, started most of the year at cornerback and has 66 tackles and 1 career interception.

Harris is the most decorated of the three, earning first-team, all-Sun Belt Conference honors in 2003 and was a second-team selection in 2002. The senior has been a mainstay with Louisiana-Monroe's defense and has 293 career tackles.

Jones eclipsed the 2,000-yard career rushing mark with his 93-yard effort Saturday night. He has 2,044 yards in his career and needs 237 to surpass Mississippi State's John Bond for the SEC quarterback rushing record (2,280). ... Texas tailback Cedric Benson earned Big 12 Offensive Player of the Week honors for his 188-rushing yard, two-touchdown performance against the Hogs. ... Arkansas received five votes in this week's Associated Press poll and one vote in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches' Poll.

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