Who will be the quarterback?
That is simply the most important question of the next 15 football workouts at Arkansas, beginning with the first practice of spring drills Monday.
It takes 11 men to play effective offense. You can't do it with just one player, although some have suggested over the past four years that Matt Jones often did it by himself. That's another debate, though.
I think this offense has enough weapons to be effective if a solid player can be found to man the quarterback slot. That's easier said than done. Quarterback has always been the toughest and most important position on the field.
It doesn't just take a talented player at quarterback to move the team. He must also be experienced. So without a player with many SEC snaps returning, settling on a quarterback early might be even more important this spring.
At first glance, it would appear that sophomore Robrt Johnson the most likely candidate to become the main man at quarterback. This will be his third spring at Arkansas and he has some experience and has both speed and a strong arm.
But I'm not so sure that the Arkansas brain trust is ready to declare Johnson as the heir apparent at QB. I think they envision a tight battle this spring between Johnson and freshman Alex Mortensen. They are also excited to get their first glimpse outside of agility drills of newcomer Cole Barthel.
Johnson is the closest thing the Hogs have to Jones as far as athletic ability. At over 6-2 and around 200 pounds, he is strong and fast. He's not a sub 4.4 guy like Jones, but he is a sub 4.5 runner in the 40. He can outrun most linebackers and is a threat to go the distance in the option packages the Hogs have used the past three seasons. He has a strong arm, but isn't always accurate. One of his assignments last fall was to develop more touch on the short passes and it appeared he accomplished that goal.
Mortensen has been groomed to be an SEC quarterback from a young age. He is the most accurate of the passers and has the right background in a passing system. Yes, he played at a lower classification in high school, but that was a league comparable to Class AAAA in Arkansas. And, the system he operated from in the passing game was sophisticated beyond what most see in high school. He's gained strength and size since arriving at Arkansas and is up to 205. He looked like a quick athlete in offseason drills.
Barthel was known as an intense competitor as a prep quarterback four seasons ago when Arkansas originally signed him to a football letter of intent. Of course, the standout third baseman elected to sign a big contract with the Atlanta Braves. However, he never made it out of minor league baseball and elected to give baseball a try after last summer. He enrolled at Arkansas in January after spending many games watching the Razorbacks play football last fall. Barthel is considered to be a strong leader, but his passing skills are unknown at the present because he was out of the game for so long.
Roy Wittke is excited to get started with his quarterbacks after watching them work in the offseason. They have been ultra competitive in agility drills and in the weight room where all have added strength and bulk.
Johnson will be the quarterback with the first team on the spring's first series, but I don't think it will be long before Mortensen gets a crack with the first group even on the first day. I think Wittke will make it an even battle in an attempt to find the best man for the job. How much Barthel gets with the first group might be up for debate. I suspect it will be a two-man battle this spring, but Barthel is certainly the X-factor this spring. No one really knows what he can do on the football field just yet.
Outside of quarterback, the Hogs should be fine on offense. The line is solid with much experience back. The main loss was right guard Gene Perry. It's my guess that massive Zac Tubbs, the starting right tackle before a midseason leg and ankle injury, will eventually settle in there. Tubbs is still in rehabilitation and won't practice this spring. The other line returnees are Kyle Roper at center, Robert Felton at right tackle, Tony Ugoh at left tackle and Stephen Parker at left guard.
There are plenty of big bodies to fill in the backup slots in the offensive line. Matt Gilbow, Nate Garner, Tyler Morgan, Skye Peterson, Cody Green, Jonathan Luigs, Chase Pressley and Ivora Hall all have some experience and could push for playing time.
The offensive backfield is a little thin with offseason surgery to De'Arrius Howard sidelining the top returning rusher. That leaves Peyton Hillis and Kyle Dickerson to battle at tailback. Brandon Kennedy, Kyle Payne and Farod Jackson are experienced and talented at fullback. Tailback will not be solidified until a talented group of freshman arrive in August. Payne and Jackson, while natural fullbacks, might have to log some duty at tailback just because of the low numbers there this spring.
Wide reciever looks like the most experienced and talented position on offense. Marcus Monk, Cedric Washington and Chris Baker are solid SEC players. Cedric Logan and Anthony Brown, a pair of redshirts, bring more excitement to that position.
Tight end might be the position that gets the biggest boost from the redshirt list with Marc Winston improved after a winter in the weight room. He was at 255 a week ago. Jared Hicks and Mason Templeton were the top hands there last year and both return, but Winston has more ability as a receiver than either of them.
Most of the top hands return in the kicking game.
Quarterback Battle Looms
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