Spring Drills Kick Off Today

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas coach Houston Nutt has been through this before.

Just not lately.

But it wasn't too long ago that former Razorbacks quarterback Clint Stoerner's memorable career came to an end with the 27-6 win against Texas in the 2000 Cotton Bowl. It capped a two-year run in which Stoerner rewrote the school's record books, serving as Arkansas' unquestionable leader while thriving under pressure.

Then Stoerner graduated.

"It just seemed like, ‘Oh no, where's our leader?'" Nutt said. "‘Where's the guy that's going to get us in the right play? Who's going to be the guy to throw a touchdown pass?'

"All those thing come to your mind over and over and over."

The Razorbacks face similar questions when they open spring drills this afternoon without three-year starter Matt   Jones, who accounted for more 84,500 yards and 77 touchdowns during his unforgettable career. While Jones solidifies his position as a receiver in the 2005 NFL Draft, the Hogs will watch Robert Johnson, Alex Mortensen and Cole Barthel work the new-look offense.

Arkansas has plenty of questions to answer: How will the defense respond to new coordinator Reggie Herring? How much will the offensive line improve? Who will carry the ball after off-season injuries to De'Arrius Howard and Dedrick Poole? How will familiar players look in new positions?

But there's no doubt the quarterback question is the focal point of the 15 spring workouts.

"Everybody's talking about the quarterback battle," said sophomore defensive end Jamaal Anderson. "Even I talk about it. That quarterback battle is going to be good."

Quarterbacks coach Roy Wittke said the only available answer at this point is Johnson will get the first chance under center today. But Wittke said Mortensen, a redshirt freshman, and Barthel, a true freshman who spent four years playing minor league baseball, will get plenty of quality work over the next three weeks.

Of course, performance also will dictate repetitions throughout spring practice.

"All three are going to get good looks. We have to give them good looks," Wittke said. "They all have things that they can do and they all, based on what they've done in the off-season, put themselves in a position to deserve a good look.

"Hopefully we'll know a lot more about them at the end of spring. Whether we'll know enough to make a final decision, that will remain to be seen."

Johnson, a sophomore, is the only quarterback with on-the-field experience. He played in six games last season, completing 10 of 19 passes for 209 yards with 3 touchdowns and 1 interception. The Waco, Texas, native also had extended practice repetitions, filling in for an often banged-up Jones on a regular basis.

Johnson believes those experiences, including a humbling series against Georgia in which he was sacked twice in the fourth quarter, gives him an advantage.

"I feel like I can lead the team," Johnson said. "I feel like I earned some of the trust of the other players.

"I tell myself it's my team. I'm ready to lead these guys to a victory."

Whoever wins the job won't be relied on to carry the offense as Jones often was. Arkansas' offense was molded around Jones' individual talents, illustrated by the bootlegs, rollouts and options that took advantage of his running abilities.

Arkansas' new quarterback will be surrounded by seven returning starters and several more contributors who gained experience in 2004.

Instead of being asked to win games like Jones, the quarterback will be expected to manage them, rely on his teammates and put Arkansas in a position to win.

"Not only will we have to find a starting quarterback, we'll also have to regain a little bit of an identity as an offense," Wittke said. "There's no question that we relied on Matt and his big-play ability over the course of the last several years.

"We're going to have to replace those things. Other people are going to have to fill in and get that done. So we may have to be a little bit different."

Wittke said Johnson, Mortensen and Barthel will concentrate on passing ability, decision-making, team management and leadership. The ultimate decision about a starter, whether it comes this spring or in the early fall, will be based solely on who gives Arkansas the best chance to move the ball.

The Razorbacks won't put a timetable on the decision and Wittke said it could stretch until the opener.

"I don't think there's any question that we'd all like to be settled and know who the No. 1 guy is," Wittke said. "But there's no way we're going to rush this thing. We're going to make sure that we make the decision that's best for the offense and best for the football team. That may indeed take time.

"We're going to evaluate everything and try to put them in as many positions as possible so that we can see what they're capable of doing and go from there."

Nutt declared the battle for the starting job a "wide-open race" and is hoping one quarterback will rise to the top as soon as possible. All three have flashed potential and demonstrated confidence during the off-season, but Nutt is waiting to see what happens when "there's bullets going off" around them.

The good news is that Nutt believes the Hogs are ready for the change this time.

"We've been preparing for this day (without Jones) a little better (than Stoerner)," Nutt said. "We've had more time to think about it because we didn't go to a bowl game last season.

"My mind has been on these new quarterbacks a lot longer now."

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