Offensive outburst

FAYETTEVILLE --Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said a few doubts crept into his mind about his offense this summer.

It's hard to blame him after 10 veteran starters like offensive tackle Shawn Andrews, tailback Cedric Cobbs and receiver George Wilson departed after productive careers. Nutt had the key piece, quarterback Matt Jones, returning for his senior season, but wasn't sure how the rest of the inexperienced players would perform when they ran onto the field.

"There was times this summer I was wondering," Nutt said. "With so many questions people were asking me about the offensive line, I got to thinking, 'Well, are we going to be able to get to the line of scrimmage?'"

But it hasn't taken long for Nutt -- and anybody watching the Razorbacks -- to realize there isn't a problem. In fact, keeping a confident group from chewing up chunks of yardage has been a much larger challenge for opposing defenses.

Arkansas enters Saturday's game against Alabama leading the Southeastern Conference in scoring (44 points), total offense (525.7 yards), passing (297.3) and is second behind the Crimson Tide in rushing (228.3) after three weeks. The Hogs also lead the conference in first downs (70), passing efficiency (178.4) and are the only SEC team that hasn't surrendered a sack.

The explosive and efficient attack will test its strength against the nation's fifth-ranked defense this weekend.

But Arkansas enters its SEC opener armed with more confidence and weapons than it has had in quite awhile.

"The thing that I think we're starting to see is there's some true confidence being built based on the success that we've had. That's important," said quarterbacks coach Roy Wittke. "The other thing you can see is that there's a lot of people making contributions.

"Our guys are buying into what we're doing and that unselfishness is going to be important. We're going to need everyone as we enter into the SEC schedule and get into the heart of what we're up against."

The biggest change has been Arkansas' newfound confidence in its passing offense.

The Hogs finished last in the SEC in passing the past three years and were 11th in 2000. Their inability to throw effectively gave opposing defenses the luxury of packing the box with eight or nine defenders to stop the run.

But Arkansas has operated a balanced attack and Nutt said there's no coincidence the lightning-quick start has coincided with Jones' maturation as a quarterback. His improved passing skills, knowledge of defenses and familiarity with receivers has helped the success.

"It helps to have a veteran quarterback," Nutt said. "It helps to have a guy who you feel so comfortable (with) and gives you this calming effect out there that, 'Hey, everything's going to be OK. Just snap it to me' and he's going to distribute it to the guys around him."

It also helps that Jones has a wider variety of weapons to choose from.

Last season, he predominantly found two targets, Wilson and senior Richard Smith. But Jones has spread the ball to a variety of receivers, finding Steven Harris, Carlos Ousley, Marcus Monk, Chris Baker and Cedric Washington.

Harris leads the group with 10 catches. But the rest have at least four each.

Together, they've combined for 34 catches, 676 yards and 7 touchdowns.

"It's so much easier on the running game," said tailback De'Arrius Howard, who benefited during his 109-yard outing against the Indians. "We've got Marcus Monk, Steven Harris, Carlos Ousley. We've got some threats at wideout and we haven't even started to talk about the running backs.

"The passing game took a lot of pressure off of us. Now they can't have nine in the box because they've got to respect our passing game."

But there's no argument the biggest surprise -- and biggest key -- to the success has been the offensive line. The inexperienced group had just two career starts, both belonging to right tackle Zac Tubbs, to its name before the opener.

Tubbs said he has been surprised at how quickly the group has been able to open holes, pick up blitzes and protect Jones. Wittke said the offensive line deserves a tremendous amount of credit.

"We knew we would go as far as our offensive line would take us," Wittke said. "I think those people up front have really done a tremendous job and they're getting better every week. They're giving us an opportunity to throw the football. They're giving us an opportunity to run it.

"Monroe threw a lot of things at us and our guys stayed solid."

They've helped the Hogs score 17 touchdowns (9 rushing, 8 passing) and produce points on 19 of their 41 possessions. Nutt said the only things holding the confident group back are turnovers and penalties.

That was evident during the 22-20 loss to Texas, when Arkansas had little trouble moving the ball. The Razorbacks piled up 458 yards of offense, but had key drives stall because of turnovers.

"The only times we're not scoring the ball or are doing something good is a penalty or a turnover," Jones said. "We've really been stopping ourselves on a couple of drives. But I don't think we've really been stopped that much this year.

"If we can continue to quit beating ourselves and execute our stuff, then I think we'll be all right."

If so, the Hogs could challenge several Arkansas single-season records.

The 1998 team holds the top spot for passing yards (2,668) and averaged 242.5 through the air a game. The 2003 team holds the school record for total yardage (5,607), points (436) and touchdowns (56). The 1989 Hogs produced a school-best 447.8 yards and they averaged a record 36.5 points in 1970.

Arkansas got off to a quick start last season, but were slowed once SEC play began. The Hogs averaged 38 points in their first three games, then combined to score just 38 points during a three-game losing skid to Auburn, Florida and Ole Miss.

That's why Jones and Howard both said they're not ready to consider the 2004 group among the best in school history or the SEC's best. Jones said Arkansas' success will be measured by how it handles the next eight games.

"We've only really had one test," Jones said. "Not to take anything away from New Mexico State or (Louisiana)-Monroe, but we've only had one real tough game.

"I think we'll find out in these next couple games if we're any good or not."

Hawgs Daily Top Stories