Practice Field Promotion

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas left guard Stephen Parker knows how junior Tyler Morgan feels after sliding into a first team spot when then-redshirt freshman Robert Felton went down with an injury last preseason.

So does Felton, who was inserted into the lineup against Georgia last season in place of injured left tackle Tony Ugoh. The same goes for right guard Zac Tubbs, who stepped into the starting lineup as a true freshman in place of former All-American right tackle Shawn Andrews for one game in 2002.

"You don't plan on the person in front of you getting hurt or coming out," Tubbs said. "But then you just find yourself out there. It can be a little overwhelming."

Morgan is taking his turn in the spotlight this week after earning a quick bump to the first-team offense in place of the injured Tubbs. The 6-foot-6, 296-pounder from Hot Springs, who has spent three years primarily watching from the sidelines, is preparing for a starting role in case Tubbs can't return from a high ankle sprain in time for the Sept. 3 season opener against Missouri State.

Arkansas offensive line coach Mike Markuson said it's the kind of jump that no one thought Morgan could make last season.

But after showing promise in spring practices and gaining strength in the summer, Markuson believes Morgan is worthy of the promotion.

"He's playing tougher," Markuson said. "He's not playing scared. He's playing every snap. The guy is giving great effort. And when you give great effort, and you hang in there, good things are going to happen. That's what he's doing.

"He just has to keep it going. He can't get comfortable and he knows that. If he keeps improving, we'll be in good shape."

That was the problem during Morgan's first three years. It was hard to improve.

He redshirted in 2002 and missed the next spring after coming down with a case of mononucleosis. He returned in time for the 2003 season, but played sparingly in blowout wins against Tulsa and Mississippi State. He logged a career-high 32 snaps in the 2004 season opener against New Mexico State, but earned limited time against Louisiana-Monroe, Auburn and Ole Miss.

Morgan's development was slowed because of the bout with mono. A handful of minor injuries didn't help. He wasn't big enough in the lower body to drive defensive linemen, lacked proper technique and admitted he had, at times, a bad attitude.

"I'd get sick, then I'd get well, then I'd get hurt," Morgan said. "Then I'd get down, have a bad attitude. It was all me."

But Markuson said most linemen typically take time to develop.

"Some guys, it's physical," Markuson said. "For others, it's mental. I think in Tyler's case it was a little bit of both. He did get sick one year with mono and it kind of set him back. He also wasn't the strongest coming in. He was a tall skinny guy.

"He's had to work in the weight room."

Morgan said everything turned around last spring when he was one of just a handful of linemen left standing during an injury-plagued month.

The absences helped him earn more repetitions, gain confidence and enter the preseason as Arkansas' second-team right guard. He also was the veteran of a reserve group which included junior Chase Pressley, sophomore Nate Garner, redshirt freshman Jonathan Luigs, and true freshmen Jose Valdez and Colin Tucker.

All six kicked off the preseason working behind an experienced and talented starting group, but saw how quickly their roles could change last Saturday.

"We all came to the realization of how close we are when Zac got hurt," Luigs said. "You're one play away from your number being called. So you really need to pay attention in meetings, know what the offense is and be ready and on your toes."

Teammate Kyle Roper said Morgan has proven he was prepared for the jump.

"We haven't missed a step with (Morgan)," Roper said. "He's been doing really good. It's unbelievable. He's 10 times ahead from where he was last year and he's just getting better every practice.

"There's a good shot that Morgan might be the starter for the first game. So he's got to get ready for that. It has definitely motivated him to work harder."

Morgan doesn't think he's polished enough, yet. He added plenty of lower body strength in the off-season and said he's comfortable with run blocking. But Morgan said he's a little weaker in pass protection, a skill he's working to improve.

He wants to be ready in case his teammates need him on Sept. 3.

"With Tubbs going down, you've got to be ready," Morgan said. "If you're not ready around here, they're not going to play you. I'm enjoying (the first-team work), but I'm not really worrying about all that starting and all that.

"I've got a long way to go."

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