Hogs Pinned In For Practice

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas unveiled a new defensive coordinator, several players at different positions and a first-team quarterback other than departed senior Matt Jones when spring practices opened Monday afternoon.

But the Razorbacks most visible -- and, perhaps, most talked about -- addition had nothing to do with formations, schemes or depth charts.

Instead, the noticeable change that greeted the Hogs when they returned to campus from spring break was the addition of black tarps wrapped around the fence that surrounds the Hogs' two outdoor practice fields. For the first time in his tenure Nutt has decided to close spring practice to the media and fans and believes it will be a beneficial move for his team, which is coming off a disappointing 5-6 season.

"It's strictly for the benefit of our players, our coaches to just zero in, concentrate and get the level of intensity we want," Nutt said Monday. "It's a must.

"You're focused on this play and a coach is in your ear. When you put tarps up and you do close it like most of the world does anyway, there's a little difference."

Nutt and the Razorbacks could use the extra concentration after the season-ending 43-14 loss to LSU snapped a six-year bowl streak and handed Nutt his first losing year in Fayetteville. Since, Arkansas had 122 days to think about the loss, prepare for spring practices and search for ways to improve and avoid another losing season.

Nutt first flirted with the idea of closing practices in the weeks after the LSU game. But his idea wasn't cemented until former South Carolina and Arkansas coach Lou Holtz visited the coaching staff last month.

The black tarps were put up Monday before the Razorbacks got on the field and will remain there -- for now.

Nutt said every scrimmage will remain open to the media and public throughout spring practices. The first one could come as early as Thursday, when the Hogs hold their first full pads practice. Arkansas also is scheduled to scrimmage Saturday.

"I don't know how much of a difference it makes," redshirt freshman quarterback Alex Mortensen said about the closed practices. "But I think it's making a statement to us that there are no outside distractions. We're zeroing in. We're going to focus."

Said defensive end Desmond Sims: "We're just trying to be serious and focus and try to come out here and get better every day as a team."

The Razorbacks have several unanswered questions that must be addressed behind the black curtain over the course of the next three weeks.

For instance, Mortensen is one of three inexperienced players (Robert Johnson and Cole Barthel) battling for the starting job at quarterback. The offense will take on a new identity without Jones, the multi-talented and dangerous quarterback who made plays on the run. That means Nutt and the Razorbacks will lean on the supporting cast at wide receiver, running back and the offensive line.

On defense, new coordinator Reggie Herring is implementing a 4-3 scheme in hopes of improving a defense that ranked near the bottom of the Southeastern Conference last season. Players like Sims (linebackers to defensive end), Marcus Harrison (defensive end to defensive tackle) and Desmond Williams (free safety to strongside linebacker) are learning new positions this spring.

So strong safety Vickiel Vaughn said closed practices could help. But, either way, the Razorbacks have plenty to concentrate on in the next three weeks.

"Spring practice basically molds your team for the next season," Vaughn said. "Going through spring, you kind of get the definition for your team, what you'll be like. Whether or not they cover (practices) up or we go in a dome or go inside, it shouldn't really not a big deal to us.

"We're going to come out here and focus on practice and get better."

Nutt said he already felt the affects of a closed practice Monday afternoon.

"You could tell," Nutt said. "When they walked in and saw the tarps for the first time too, it was like, 'Ooh, we're closed off in here.' There's more concentration."

Most SEC programs, along with numerous schools across the country, close practices to fans and the media on a year-round basis. Arkansas typically hasn't under former coaches like Holtz, Danny Ford and athletic director Frank Broyles.

Nutt hasn't decided if he'll close practices next fall and said he hasn't "gotten anywhere close to that yet."

Nutt said having closed practices throughout spring drills will be a first for him and that the decision wasn't aimed to eliminate the daily exposure the Razorbacks receive. The coach, who is entering his eighth season at Arkansas, also stressed he isn't trying to "alienate" supporters that want a good look at the Hogs this spring.

Simply put, Nutt hopes the decision to close practices is one that will help the Razorbacks "get better."

"It's just not that big of a deal," Nutt said. "I just don't think it is. But I think it's just big enough deal where the players are listening better."

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