Quarterback Battle Begins

FAYETTEVILLE -- The battle for the starting quarterback job began Monday afternoon when Arkansas kicked off spring practice.

But quarterbacks coach Roy Wittke stressed that his three candidates -- sophomore Robert Johnson, redshirt freshman Alex Mortensen and true freshman Cole Barthel -- know that the Hogs aren't even close to naming their replacement for departed quarterback Matt Jones.

"They all understand it's going to be awhile before they begin to sort themselves out," Wittke said. "Their focus is getting better each and every day. We have to improve. That's our No. 1 priority right now."

According to Wittke, Johnson was the first quarterback under center during Monday's workout, which was closed to fans and the media. Johnson, the only quarterback with game experience, has a leg up on the competition after getting plenty of practice repetitions and six appearances as Jones' backup last season.

Wittke said Mortensen and Barthel each got "fairly equal" work with Johnson.

Mortensen, who redshirted in 2004, and Barthel, who originally signed with Arkansas in 2001 before playing baseball in the Atlanta Braves organization for four years, both said they're excited about the chance to compete for the starting job.

"This is something you dream about when you're a kid," Mortensen said. "The biggest thing we all understand, it's not about winning the job. It's about getting our team where we need to be and getting us winning more than five games next year."

Arkansas coach Houston Nutt liked what he saw from all three quarterbacks Monday. Each got off to a bit of a rocky start, but Nutt was impressed with the way they settled down and got Arkansas in and out of the huddle.

"For the first day, they're trying awfully hard," Nutt said. "The first eight or nine periods (in practice), they're trying awfully hard and trying to complete every pass, overthrew a lot of balls, missed a lot of passes early.

"But as the practice went on, they got better and better and better."

Jackson Update
Returning starter John Jackson, who was moved from linebacker to the secondary during the off-season, missed Monday's practice after being suspended for violating team rules. Nutt said the senior's on-the-field suspension stemmed from a violation of dorm rules and his status at the university remains in question.

"We're just trying to correct his life and really concentrate on school," Nutt said. "He needs to do that. He's got to wait on the decision by the judicial board, too. My main concern is school right now, keeping that going in the right direction."

Nutt said Jackson faces the possibility of stiffer penalties with the Razorbacks because of his past mistakes. Jackson was suspended from spring drills in 2004 after an off-season arrest for driving under the influence.

Jackson, a Monticello native, started nine games at wolf linebacker in 2004 and finished seventh on the team with 39 tackles. Jackson, who played in six games as a true freshman in 2002, has 57 tackles and 1 sack in his career.

Missing From Action
Arkansas opened practice without center Kyle Roper, cornerback Michael Grant and free safety Randy Kelly. All three ran into travel problems on Sunday and couldn't return from spring break because of inclement weather in the Atlanta area.

"They were supposed to be back (Monday) morning, but could not make it," Nutt said. "They're due in (this) morning. We'll just have to get their homework assignments and get them in tomorrow morning."

Without Roper, Nutt said backup Skye Peterson handled repetitions with the first-team offense and performed solidly. Kelly is listed as the first-team free safety, but senior Lerinezo Robinson worked his place Monday.

Grant, who played in all 11 games as a true freshman, is listed as the second-team right cornerback behind returning starter Darius Vinnett. But the 5-foot-11, 185-pounder will miss part of spring practice to run track with the Razorbacks.

"You hate it," Nutt said about Monday's absences. "You thought about waiting until (today) to start your first one. But we were so geared up."

Herring's Debut
It didn't take long for new Arkansas defensive coordinator Reggie Herring's fiery personality to show up on the practice field Monday. The hard-nosed coach threw the second-team defense off the field during the first five minutes of practice.

The reason? Herring spotted a defensive back with an unbuckled chin strap.

Arkansas is expecting more of the same under Herring, who told defensive players to beware of the demands that will be placed on them under his leadership. But junior defensive end Desmond Sims said Herring's intense style will be good for the Hogs.

"It's going to help our team a lot," Sims said. "He's a hard-nosed guy and that's what this game is about."

Extra Points
Running backs De'Arrius Howard (shoulder) and Dedrick Poole (groin) are expected to miss most of spring drills because of injuries. But the seniors were on the field throughout Monday's non-contact workout. ... Incoming freshman wide receiver Reggie Fish, who graduated early from Mesquite (Texas) High, and redshirt freshman linebacker Matt Stoltz, who signed with LSU out of Pulaski Academy and transferred to Arkansas, made their debuts Monday. ... Left tackle Tony Ugoh, who is competing with Arkansas' track team this spring, missed Monday's workout. Nutt said Ugoh should be available today.

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