Johnson Leads Quarterback Race

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas coach Houston Nutt inched closer to naming a starting quarterback by designating sophomore Robert Johnson as the leader among three players vying for the job Saturday.

"Robert is the furthest ahead," Nutt said. "He's created a little separation."

Nutt said Johnson has gained an edge after getting a second opportunity to evaluate the Waco, Texas native and quarterbacks Alex Mortensen and Cole Barthel. Each got at least 20 plays during a situational scrimmage during Arkansas' Saturday afternoon practice, which came on the first day of two-a-day workouts.

"Robert Johnson had a very good day," Nutt said. "A very good day of executing, throwing to our guys, getting us out of the wrong play and into the right play and managing 25 seconds.

"All those small things that you took for granted when you had a quarterback here for four years like Matt (Jones)."

The 6-foot-2, 212-pound Johnson didn't look surprised when told the news after practice. He's the only quarterback with experience, playing in six games and completing 10 of 19 passes for 209 yards and three touchdowns last season.

"I think I had a pretty good day," Johnson said. "I feel really confident out there and comfortable with the playbook. I've been here for three years, so it's about time."

None of the coaches would name Johnson the starter. But their decision could come soon. Nutt said before preseason practices began that he intended to name a starting quarterback during the first two weeks of drills.

"There's no question we're closer," said quarterbacks coach Roy Wittke. "Every day that goes by, we get a little bit closer and we need to be closer because the opener (against Missouri State on Sept. 3) is drawing near.

"We need to begin to focus in and prepare one guy."

Wittke pointed to Johnson's experience -- not only in games, but in the system -- as giving him an advantage on the other quarterbacks after six days of practice.

"Two things he needs to improve: Consistency and too many unforced errors," Wittke said. "We can't put the ball on the ground and we can't throw interceptions. People are going to make plays when there's a ball dropped or there's a drop on an exchange, but you can't allow those things to happen more than they should.

"He has improved and I think it's because he's more confident."

Wittke said Johnson, who underwent hernia surgery earlier this summer, is starting to gain confidence after the first week of practice. Johnson said he is "85 percent" recovered from surgery, but took on a leadership role this summer by helping seniors get more teammates to workouts than in years past.

"He's on his way (to looking like a starter)," Nutt said. "He's really handled things very well and is throwing the ball with good velocity. He hasn't forced it the last couple of days and I've been pleased with that."

As far as who's next in line, Nutt said Mortensen is improving in all areas, especially as an on-field captain. The redshirt freshman from Fairburn, Ga., said he believes he's made some improvements but still has "a long way to go."

"Alex is doing a very good job with our huddle calls and getting us in the proper play," Nutt said. "He's showing intelligence and he's more accurate in a scrimmage or pressure situation than he is in individual (drills) which is when it counts."

Barthel continues to work off rust. He's a 23-year-old true freshman from Decatur, Ala. who spent the past four years playing minor league baseball in the Atlanta Braves' organization.

"He's trying awfully hard," Nutt said. "He's the guy that's been the furthest away and it's not all his fault. He's had four years away from football and we've put in the whole (playbook), so we're throwing a lot of things at him."

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