No one seemed surprised that the first team defense dominated and the three quarterbacks did little to end the speculation about who will be the starter next fall.
That didn't keep coaches and players from smiling after the Razorbacks ended 15 days of spring drills with a 47-play scrimmage Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
"It was a beautiful day," head coach Houston Nutt said. "I apreciate the crowd (announced at 10,300). We had a very good spring. I'm anxious to watch this film. The offensive line fought through some injuries. I appreciate their heart and character. Now we will concentrate on school and class work and then get ready for our summer conditioning."
Neither Nutt or quarterback coach Roy Wittke would name a starter for next fall, but indicated that sophomore Robert Johnson was ahead of freshman Alex Mortensen and Cole Barthel.
On the quarterback race, Nutt said, "They all improved, but we have a long way to go there. If we played a game right now, Robert Johnson would be first. He's just had more repetitions. He's ahead because of that. He improved since day one this spring.
"We aren't going to go on the 20 or so plays he got today, but over the entire spring. Alex got more accurate as the spring went on. Barthel has some good intangibles. He hangs in the pocket well and finds his second receivers. Robert is ahead but all of them have room for improvement."
All of the quarterbacks spent the day dodging junior defensive end Desmond Sims. The New Madrid, Mo., product had three sacks for 20 yards in losses.
Defensively, Nutt said, "Desmond Sims has gotten better and better and better since day one after making that move to end. You are going to have to put four hands on him to slow him down. We've come a long way in Coach Herring's new system. Marcus Harrison is the bell cow of that defense, along with Sims. We've got to get Keith Jackson in shape. We've got to get rid of a few pounds on some of the others, too. Sims has done a good job of accepting a new position. He's been a playmaker this spring."
The first defense swamped the offense anytime it was on the field. About every other play was a lost yardage play when the first defense was out there. It did not allow a first down except for a late-hit by Darius Vinnett on a play when he forced Robert Johnson out of bounds 5 yards before the stakes. All of the QBs struggled against the first defense.
"Overall, you have to look at the big picture. From day one, we've had improvement in work habits and mental toughness. We've come a long ways, but we still have to have a tremendous summer to be where we want to be.
"I think those that are intelligent will see what happened today and who was where and who was in what huddle. When our ones were on the field, they did very well. I don't think they gave up much at all, maybe one first down on a penalty. Our second secondary gave up a deep ball and our third and fourth groups gave up some touchdowns. That was where the points came, against our thirds and fourths mainly.
"We still have some depth issues. We will need some freshmen to come in and help. But we are stepping in the right direction. Overall, we still have to improve our conditioning and speed. I think we will turn a few eyebrows with some things that we still might do. We are going to mix it and match it to get our best 11 on the field. We still have some changes to make and some moves to make."
As far as earning starting jobs, Herring said only a handful did that in the spring.
"I think Marcus Harrison did that at one of the tackles. He's got a spot now. I think Desmond Sims has one of the ends locked down. The other one is still up for grabs. I think Pierre Brown has SAM (strongside) linebacker locked down. He's good there. I think the safeties are going to be Vickiel Vaughn and Randy Kelly. (Darius) Vinnett looks good at one corner and (Michael) Grant looks pretty good at another corner when he's been out there.
"I'd like to have Anthony Brown to work full time at end, but that's up to the boss. He's looked good at wideout, too, so it's a tough call. We'll let the boss decide that one, but I want him. He can help either side of the ball, that's for sure.
"We still have a lot of unanswered questions. There will be some changes still. We have some guys who need to lose weight like Keith Jackson and Ernest Mitchell. Those guys and some others have to make some decisions on weight, do they like food or football.
"The good news is that they all know what a loaf is. They know what is expected. What they need now is to become faster and better conditioned. Coach Nutt has said we are going to run more this summer than we've ever run. We are going to dedicate ourselves to being the best conditioned team in the nation. We have to run harder and faster than we've ever run this summer.
"We will continue to tinker with things over the summer. We need some freshmen to step up.
"I'm pleased with some things. I was pleased with Sims and Snider at end. I think Snider is going to be a player. That spot is still up for grabs on his side, but he did some good things this spring.
"I want them all to know that there is still a lot of playing time up for grabs. We will see what happens this summer and in August, but we are headed the right direction."
"The first group has an understanding of urgency. The others don't. We are one step closer. We have all of our scheme in except goal line and we didn't get enough work there and we just decided to wait until August for that. I think you will see a dramatic carry over from what we did this spring over the summer.
Of the quarterbacks, Cole Barthel had the best numbers, but they were achieved against a combination of third and fourth teamers with the first group in the offensive huddle. It would have been stunning had that group not looked good against that defense.
When Barthel went against the first defense later, he went backwards just like the other two QBs when they played against the first defense.
The offensive line did not protect any of the QBs. Desmond Sims had three sacks and got pressure two other times. It appeared the O-line was missing one tackle. Robert Felton did okay on the left side, but the right side was having trouble with Sims. Senior-to-be tackle Tony Ugoh missed the spring to be with the track team left a big hole in the O-line.
"I saw more today, but I guess you would have liked to have seen more than we saw this spring of the three quarterbacks," quarterback coach Roy Wittke said to questions about his evaluation of the quarterbacks this spring.
"I give credit to the defense because they've made tremendous improvement over the course of the spring and they made it hard on us sometimes today.
"What we are looking at as far as the bottom line is demeanor, production and execution from the quarterback spot. We aren't going to make a decision until we are 100 percent sure.
"What I do know is that they all worked hard and made progress this spring. I'd like to have seen more today. I don't know if this is totally accurate, but the plan was to give each of them about 15 to 16 plays. I think we were close, but Robert Johnson might have gotten a few more snaps.
"You have to look at a lot of factors when you evaluate the quarterbacks -- who was in the huddle with them and who was on the other side of the ball. That changes things.
"We will look at a lot of things in making this decision. We will look at what happens this summer, including how they do in the weight room and what they do all summer. Of course, August is going to be important, too. We might go awhile in August before making a decision.
"I've faced this before, with three in the spring, but never when we had this limited amount of scrimmage plays. It could not be helped because of the limited number of offensive linemen we had. Those offensive linemen battled all spring and we did the best we could.
"Let me reaffirm, it's not about when we make the decision (on who is named starter), but about making the right decision.
"We see progress in all three. I know that Cole Barthel made progress. It's been tough on him after four years in baseball. He made the comment to me just before the start of the scrimmage that this sure isn't baseball. He is still knocking the rust off. Alex is knocking the rust off, too. It's going to take time for Alex, too."
The converted linebackers, Desmond Sims and Zach Snider, played well at end for the first team defense. The cornerbacks did well, except for John Johnson, who gave up two completions. The other cornerbacks jammed the wideouts at the line and disrupted the timing of the offense. I didn't see anyone get off the line clean on a consistent basis and that goes for Marcus Monk, too.
"I enjoyed end the last part of the spring," Sims said. "I wasn't sure when they first approached me. But I was sure about it after meeting with coach (Tracy) Rocker. I thought we did good today. Zach got a nice tackle on the attempted reverse. He snuffed that out."
One thing to remember, it was a mini scrimmage. There were 47 snaps total. There were 15 more snaps in the pre-scrimmage work in pass skeleton. Overall, not enough snaps to get too excited or too down either way from what happened. It was just a snapshot.
It was clear to most that the defense was ahead of the offense today. Defensive coordinator Reggie Herring has done a nice job of putting in his 4-3 scheme, and they line up in a 4-3 even when they are in dime or nickel coverage. They put Darius Vinnett at linebacker in one of their packages today. His No. 4 jersey and very small body looks funny there, but at the snap, he drops into his coverage area.
The tackling was very solid. They knocked Peyton Hillis back several times. Sam Olajubutu hit Hillis for a 2-yard loss on one play and I don't remember a linebacker making one single play like that in the last two years. So it's obvious this defense is making progess.
Attendance was announced at 10,300 by sports information director Kevin Trainor. Many in the assembled media in the press box groaned when he gave them that number. It was my estimation, probably on the high side, that attendance was around 6,500. Some said 4,000.
Among the highlights:
* A double pass from Cole Barthel to Marcus Monk to Peyton Hillis for a 40-yard touchdown. That came against the third and fourth teamers on defense.
On the double pass from Barthel to Monk to Hillis for a touchdown, Nutt said, "It looks like a quick screen to the wideout. Marcus did a nice job of catching it and buying some time for it to develop. It should be open because of the pursuit to the ball. Peyton did a nice job of selling run. You got to have some fun on a day like today. Everyone likes something like that. We'd been working on it late in the spring."
* Alex Mortensen threw a 43-yard pass to Chris Baker against the second team secondary to setup a 1-yard TD run by Peyton Hillis.
* Jacob Skinner outkicked Jeremy Davis in the punting duel. Throwing out a couple of pooch punts by both that would distort the averages, Skinner had punts of 45 and 40 yards, both with nice hang time. Davis had punts of 38, 38 and 37 yards with shorter hang time. Davis has the best punt in the pooch punt competition with a 41 yarder which hit at the 1-yard line and backed up.
* Peyton Hillis led all rushers with 46 yards on 14 carries, but he lost a fumble on a fourth-down rush in the red zone work late in the scrimmage. Kyle Dickerson, making most of his yardage against the third and fourth teamers, had 32 yards on nine carries. Robert Johnson was next with 10 yards on three runs.
* The passing stats were anemic. Robert Johnson was 3 of 6 for 6 yards. Alex Mortensen was 2 of 6 for 56 yards with an interception. Cole Barthel was 2 of 3 for 41 yards. Monk, on the double pass, was the best at 1 of 1 for 40 yards. Monk confirmed afterwards that he was a quarterback as a ninth and 10th grader before moving to wideout.
* In a lengthy competition between placekickers, the best work was put in by Chris Baleseiro. He made six of nine field goals. His only miss was from 47. He also made a 47-yarder. Rusty McEntire was one of two. Ryan Vavra was one of four. B. Kennedy (I do not think this is the correct name here, but that's how it read on the stats) was 0 for 3. Courter Hall was 2 for 2.
Peyton Hillis makes a catch in the scrimmage.
Trey and Allison Ewart were among the cutest fans in the stadium.
Matt Jones attended the scrimmage.
Houston Nutt oversees the action.
Safety Randy Kelly made an interception in the scrimmage.
Photos by Tom Ewart
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