Hogs Look To Rebound

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas running back De'Arrius Howard said it was one of the worst Christmas presents he's ever gotten.

Safety Vickiel Vaughn said it was one of the worst experiences of his life.

The two seniors could probably speak for the rest of their Arkansas teammates when they tried to describe how it felt missing out on postseason play after last season's 5-6 finish.

"It was hard to deal with," Vaughn said. "You're used to going to a bowl. You're used to that type of experience. You try to take that in stride and work hard so you don't have to experience that again."

The longest off-season in coach Houston Nutt's tenure comes to an end this afternoon when the Razorbacks return to practice and begin preparation for the 2005 season. Arkansas players officially reported Saturday and are scheduled to hit the practice field this afternoon at 3:30.

Of course, the biggest question surrounding the Razorbacks is, 'Who will fill the enormous void left by departed quarterback Matt   Jones?' Arkansas will continue auditioning three candidates -- Robert Johnson, Alex Mortensen and Cole Barthel -- when practice resumes today.

Nutt knows the battle for the starting job will be the most closely watched and eagerly debated topic of the preseason. But he said there are several other areas the coaching staff will be keeping close tabs on the next four weeks.

"You've got certain things besides, naturally, quarterback," Nutt said. "Everybody wants to talk about that. But that's not the only thing. There's a few more pegs, a few more pieces of the puzzle that we need to figure out."

Here is a look at five burning questions Arkansas intends to answer before it kicks off the regular season against Missouri State on Sept. 3:

1. Can Robert Johnson fill the enormous shoes left by Matt Jones?

Johnson, who made six appearances in 2004, enters preseason camp as the first-team quarterback despite undergoing hernia surgery earlier this summer. The sophomore from Waco, Texas, handled practice repetitions throughout 2004 and is the most seasoned quarterback on the roster with 19 passing attempts.

The 6-foot-2, 212-pounder, who has a strong arm and enough agility to avoid would-be tacklers, will be given every opportunity to win the starting job. But Nutt and position coach Roy Wittke said Johnson will be challenged by Mortensen, a redshirt freshman, and Barthel, a 22-year-old true freshman.

2. Will Anthony Brown make a successful transition to defensive end?

Defensive coordinator Reggie Herring salivated over the former receiver's potential, convincing Nutt to move Brown the last week of spring drills. Herring was impressed enough after four practices to list Brown as a first-teamer opposite Desmond Sims.

The speedy Brown will get every chance to win the job after adding a few pounds to his lanky frame this summer. But Nutt, Herring and company want to see Jamaal Anderson, Zach Snider and Michael Tate improve and battle for the starting position.

3. How healthy is right tackle Zac Tubbs and the offensive line?

Tubbs was sidelined the second half of 2004 after sustaining a broken ankle during an off-week practice. The bulky, 6-foot-6, 360-pounder has spent several months rehabilitating the injury and was limited to non-contact work in the spring.

Despite the injury, the senior earned second-team, preseason SEC honors and intends to prove he's worthy of the selection. Tubbs is a key component of an offensive line that was slowed throughout the spring because of a rash of injuries.

4. Which true freshmen will make an impact at linebacker?

Arkansas has only two veteran linebackers in seniors Pierre Brown and Sam Olajubutu returning. After that, the position is void of SEC experience.

Redshirt freshman Weston Dacus finished the spring listed as the first-team middle linebacker and will have a chance to win the starting job. But Herring is counting on several true freshmen -- Freddie Fairchild, Michael Bibbs, Tyrell Graham and Antwain Robinson and De'Andre Bryant -- to step in and contribute immediately.

5. Who can Nutt count on for offensive production?

Sophomore receiver Marcus Monk is Arkansas' No. 1 receiver. Senior De'Arrius Howard and sophomore Peyton Hillis are listed as co-starters at tailback. But who else can the Razorbacks count for production this season?

Nutt has plenty of potential weapons he hopes will emerge. The list includes receivers Cedric Washington, Chris Baker and Cedric Logan, tailback Dedrick Poole and incoming freshmen Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Michael Smith.

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