State Of The Hogs: Tailbacks

Most of the summer talk about the Arkansas football team has centered on quarterbacks -- the ones on the team and the one everyone wants on the team. I am not a recruiting writer, so I will leave that last part alone today.

I'm going to say that I expect Robert Johnson to be the quarterback for at least a few games, maybe the entire season. The others (Alex Mortensen, Cole Barthel and Casey Dick) are going to get a fair shot to unseat Johnson, but I think the most experienced player will come out on top. That's the norm at quarterback and I'll stick with it.

I think Johnson will be more than adequate. In fact, one of the others might develop into something that's more than adequate for this team, too.

See, I didn't think quarterback was the biggest issue coming into August. I thought it was tailback. I'm not sure it's that way now after seeing returnee Dedrick Poole bounce around following critical hamstring surgery. He's ready to play again after tearing that tendon free of the bone last year at Auburn. Some did not expect him to ever play again.

That's just part of the good news at tailback. Of course, there is also De'Arrius Howard, Peyton Hillis and Kyle Dickerson to man the key spot in an I-formation offense. With those three and Poole, there is enough depth to give the much-needed home run threats from the freshman class time to learn without too much pressure in the early games.

I'm talking about Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Michael Smith. McFadden and Smith are the fastest of those two. They are true 4.3 guys in the 40-yard dash. They have a Fred Talley-like burst.

However, I'm more fascinated by Jones than anyone in this freshman class. Part of it stems from his background at Booker T. Washington High playing in Tulsa's toughest schoolboy conference. He gained more than 2,500 yards last year, dazzling with sharp cuts, power, endurance and toughness.

Coach Houston Nutt raved about Jones after the first two days of practice this week. While noting that McFadden or Smith were impressive, too, Nutt said that Jones' stock "soared the most" with him after the early workouts.

"Felix makes great cuts and has great vision," said Danny Nutt, running backs coach. "He's a ball player. They all are like that, though. You want to compete in anything, they will get after you."

Jones was a star in all sports at Booker T, turning heads on the basketball floor when he took his 6-0, 190-pound body inside.

"I guess I was a guard, but I liked it down low the most," he said. "I just liked to get in there and mix it up with the big guys."

Houston Nutt said, "He played above the rim when we saw him on the basketball court."

Told that, Jones said, "I tried to."

Nutt's connections from his Oklahoma days became the key in the recruitment of Jones.

"I knew his uncle, Steve Jones," Nutt said. "We played basketball together at Oklahoma State. I think Steve gave us some good words with Felix."

Did he ever.

"Uncle Steve told me that if I picked Arkansas, I would be playing for the right man," Felix said. "He said Coach Nutt was very exciting to be on the basketball court with and would be most exciting to play for in football. When I told him I had picked Arkansas, he told me again, 'You are going to be playing for the right man at the right school.'

"He was so right. I'm having a blast over here. It's fun every day."

Danny Nutt is probably having the most fun. His line at tailback is long and there is plenty of talent. You watch those backs catch the ball and listen to quarterback coach Roy Wittke promise more passes in the flats and you know he's speaking the truth. Last year, only wideout Marcus Monk rivaled Hillis as the man with the team's best pair of hands. Those new backs are right there with them now.

The word is that both McFadden (outside linebacker, safety) and Jones (cornerback) would excel on defense. That isn't going to happen. They'll all be needed at tailback before it's over.

Yes, I mentioned seven names in association with the tailback slot. Some will move around. Hillis has already been seen in practice this week at tailback, fullback, wingback, wide receiver and tight end. Poole is bouncing between running back and wide receiver, too.

That may be about the right number for tailback, too. I can remember former Nebraska coach Tom Osborne telling me one August that he liked to start every fall with seven or even eight I-backs. I doubted him the first time I heard it, but soon learned he was correct.

That also reminds me of Robert Johnson's late spring assertion that the Hogs would need every quarterback on their roster this year, too.

Yep, I remember the 2000 South Carolina game when the Hogs went through three quarterbacks (Robby Hampton, Jared McBride and Zak Clark) in one day. That's probably more the exception than the rule.

However, that can happen at tailback several times in one season. That's why I feel better about this football team today than I did a few weeks ago. I like what I see and hear about tailback.


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