Battle For Starting Job Begins

FAYETTEVILLE -- One by one, the three candidates auditioning to fill the state's most high-profile job vacancy took their turn in the spotlight Monday afternoon.

One zinged a football that landed in a receiver's hands. The next ducked a pass rush, scrambled and floated a harmless ball out of bounds. The third tossed a pass that ricocheted in the air and was hauled in by a defensive player.

The battle for the starting quarterback job at Arkansas between Robert Johnson, Alex Mortensen and Cole Barthel resumed when the Razorbacks kicked off preseason practices Monday. And, just like the first workout, coach Houston Nutt said every play -- good or bad -- will be recorded and evaluated in the Hogs' search for a starter in time for the Sept. 3 season opener against Missouri State.

"(The starter is going to be) that guy that's going to take care of the ball," Nutt said. "It's the guy that's going to take care of the clock. Put the team in the end zone without a mistake. Don't turn it over. That's going to be our guy.

"I know it's a simple recipe. But he's got to be that guy that doesn't try to be Superman, just take care of it and use the supporting cast and get everybody involved: Tight ends, backs, receivers, use everyone and keep the chains moving."

On Monday, Johnson was credited as being the most accurate quarterback of the bunch. Nutt said the sophomore threw the ball well in his time under center.

But, as a whole, Nutt said the quarterbacks turned in a sub-par performance.

"We started out real good, but got a little ragged at the end," Nutt said. "We're a lot more accurate than what we showed."

Johnson said it felt good to get back on the field after closing the spring as the quarterback atop of the depth chart. The frontrunner for the position, Johnson is the only quarterback with experience after completing 10 of 19 passes for 209 yards with 3 touchdowns and 1 interception in six games last season.

He was slowed this summer after undergoing hernia surgery on June 10, but stayed on the field and worked on his leadership skills during voluntary workouts. Johnson, who missed just a few days of work, began throwing shortly after surgery and made a solid impression on teammates.

"It was definitely a surprise, especially to see him throwing like he was," center Kyle Roper said during SEC Media Days. "It was like, 'Robert, don't you think you should be taking it a little easy?' He still had the stitches in him and was still throwing."

He still hasn't completely healed, but Johnson currently feels about "85 percent" and experienced no setbacks Monday.

He intends to be 100 percent in time for Arkansas' season opener and hopes to earn the starting position.

"It felt pretty smooth (Monday)," Johnson said. "It hurts at times. I can go hard, but I've just got to watch the things I do."

Johnson will be challenged by the 6-foot-2, 216-pound Mortensen, who redshirted last season but earned quality practice time. Mortensen spent the summer working on his fundamentals, gained strength and tried to improve his leadership skills.

Barthel, originally a member of Arkansas' 2001 signing class, spent the spring re-adjusting to football after four years in the Atlanta Braves organization. As expected, the Decatur, Ala., native was rusty during 15 spring practices, but recorded some impressive moments and feels comfortable under center.

"Both (Mortensen and Barthel), you can tell, feel more comfortable and are playing with a little more confidence," quarterbacks coach Roy Wittke said. "That's what an accumulation of reps will do."

"Cole is a little bit smoother, playing a little bit faster. Alex is more relaxed at this point than last spring. That's a combination of feeling good about his preparation and having some confidence in his abilities."

Nutt said all three quarterbacks will get equal repetitions in practice over the next few days. After that, each player will get a chance to earn more work by the quality of decisions they make and the amount of results the offense achieves in practice.

"The thing coach Wittke emphasized the other day was decision making," Mortensen said. "Who can check out of a play and get us in the right play? Things like that. Just getting in the end zone is going to be the biggest thing."

Wittke said Arkansas won't necessarily hurry their decision to name a starter during preseason camp. But the Razorbacks do have a two-week deadline in order to have one quarterback in place in time to begin preparations for Missouri State.

Wittke said the offensive staff will meet, evaluate the performances of all three quarterbacks and make a decision when they're "comfortable."

"We're drawing closer to the point where a decision needs to be made," Wittke said. "What we're looking for, from an ideal standpoint, is that someone grabs hold of the position and runs with it. If we're in a scrimmage situation where a guy starts to play with some rhthym, we may let him go to find out if he can continue with it.

"Up until we see something like that, for the most part, we're going to try to be equal. But we know that the point in time is near where we've got to focus in on a guy and get him ready to go."

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