Questions Abound At Quarterback

FAYETTEVILLE -- It's amazing how much we know about Arkansas' spring football practice with all of these closed workouts. Coaches have spilled the beans on everything from injuries to the players who have loafed the most.

Of course, the media has been allowed to watch the early part of each workout and every scrimmage play. That's enough for me to feel comfortable about the opinions in this space.

What I've seen tells me that the biggest question mark of this spring is still unanswered. Arkansas is still a long way from naming a starting quarterback. Robert Johnson is probably the leader, but it's not because he's been spectacular.

OK is the word I've heard associated with Johnson's spring. He's probably ahead more because of familiarity with the offense than anything else. Johnson's fumbled snap and an interception in the one major scrimmage are blemishes that keep the race open at this point.

Quarterback coach Roy Wittke, always one to accentuate the positive, has done a nice job talking up Alex Mortensen and Cole Barthel, the other two contenders at quarterback. But it didn't sound like either has put serious heat on Johnson.

The most positive development might have been the scrimmage work by Barthel, the Alabama product who has spent the last four years playing minor league baseball in the Atlanta system. He's far from polished in the UA system, but he has ability and poise.

Here's Wittke's overview of the quarterback race at the halfway mark of spring drills:

"I'd say Robert Johnson has made progress at staying put under pressure and delivering the ball. He has made some good throws under pressure this spring. His demeanor and relaxed nature has been good this spring. He's made improvement in that area. He's definitely more confident than he was in the fall and he made some progress there in the fall.

"Alex Mortensen has been struggling a little with his confidence. He's putting too much pressure on himself. He needs to remember that he is still a true freshman in his first spring. He had a better day (Tuesday). He does some things well. He is as good as anyone we have at staying put and taking a hit and continue to deliver the ball under that pressure. He did that in the scrimmage on Saturday. He took some shots Saturday.

"Cole Barthel made some big strides lately, especially Friday and Saturday of last week. He is probably further along physically than he is mentally. Physically, he is starting to get his feet set and throwing better. He's still behind mentally, and what I mean by that, he doesn't know what to do yet. We want our quarterbacks to play fast and he can't do that yet. There are a couple of things he does know and you can see him doing them very well. He can't play fast yet as far as the thinking part. But when he does certain things, you can really see his potential.

"As far as a natural thrower, Cole may be the best. Robert has more strength, but Cole is more natural. Alex isn't as natural, but he may be more efficient.

"We've been throwing the deep ball a lot in one-on-one and Cole and Robert have a little more range, but Alex has a little better sense of timing. All three threw some nice balls in the deep part of the workout (Tuesday)."

What does all of that mean? Johnson is ahead based on experience and knowledge. He's still the one who takes the first snap of the day with the first group.

The other two have a chance to catch him, but probably won't by the season opener. Barthel fascinates everyone who has seen him in practice. They come away saying the same thing: He throws a nice ball. Wittke seemed to say the same thing. But, can Barthel learn to throw it on time and to the right spots?

Interestingly, for the last six months most anticipated a Johnson-Mortensen duel at quarterback. It could be that it turns out to be a Johnson-Barthel fight. It's way too early to tell which of those is correct. With another major scrimmage set for Saturday, perhaps we'll have a better feel by the start of next week.

Sadly, there is no way to give the three quarterbacks an equal chance. Depth in the offensive line has slipped to a dangerous level. With Zac Tubbs, Tony Ugoh, Chase Pressley, Matt Gilbow, Jonathon Luigs, Skye Peterson and Cody Green all sitting out currently, there is a major difference between the first and second group of blockers.

Mortensen had the misfortune of working with the second line some in last week's scrimmage. He was overwhelmed by the pass rush and had no chance to show his skills at anything other than taking a hit.

Those watching the next time they scrimmage should make mental notes about something other than passing stats. Here's a checklist if you want to judge the signal callers.

Note the quarterback taking the snap from No. 70, first team center Kyle Roper, perhaps the best of the blockers left standing this spring.

Watch for the quarterback who faces corners Darius Vinnett (4) and Michael Coe (19), the most consistent defensive backs this spring.

Find Desmond Sims (23), the best of the rush ends. Which quarterback was dodging Sims. Which one had time?

If you put all of those factors into the equation, you'll have a better idea of what you saw in the quarterback race. You'll know if the biggest question mark of this spring is closer to being answered.

CLAY HENRY IS THE PUBLISHER OF HAWGS ILLUSTRATED, A STEPHENS MEDIA GROUP PUBLICATION. HIS COLUMN APPEARS EACH FRIDAY. E-MAIL: CLAY@NWAONLINE.NET

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