Hogs Scrimmage Without Starting QB

FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas coach Houston Nutt has seen more than enough behind closed practice doors to name sophomore Robert Johnson his starting quarterback heading into the Sept. 3 season opener against Missouri State.

But Arkansas fans didn't get to catch a glimpse of him Saturday night.

Johnson watched from the sideline with a groin injury while redshirt freshman Alex Mortensen and true freshman Cole Barthel took their turns leading Arkansas' offense during the Fan Day scrimmage in Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Johnson, who was named the starter last Sunday, temporarily stepped aside as the backups combined to complete 10 of 19 passes for 146 yards with one interception.

"We probably didn't execute the way we wanted them to," Nutt said. "I'm sure if you asked every one of them, they know they can do better. I think that's a good thing. We've still got two weeks. They've come a long way."

Arkansas quarterbacks coach Roy Wittke said Johnson probably could've played if it were a regular season game. But the Hogs wanted to give the sophomore, who underwent hernia surgery in June, more time to heal.

It also helped Mortensen and Barthel, who have no game experience, get on the field and run the offense in preparation for the opener.

"It was like playing a ball game with your No. 1 hurt and now the other guys have got to come in," Wittke said. "There's a different feel in preparation. There's a different feel than just saying, ‘OK, Alex, you take the next four reps with the first group.' You can't simulate other than have it happen like it did.

"It's good for the rest of our offensive unit to have those kids underneath the center, to have those kids have to make plays on third down and in the red zone and allow them to see those guys do good things.

"I think it helps create a little bit of confidence in that position."

Arkansas coaches said the extra work helped Mortensen gain confidence during the week. Mortensen practiced with the first-team offense in Johnson's place and Nutt said he turned in, perhaps, his best week since arriving on campus.

Mortensen didn't turn the ball over Saturday, but struggled to move the offense up and down the field throughout most of the scrimmage. The redshirt freshman, who didn't have an injured Brandon Kennedy (ankle) or ill Peyton Hillis (stomach virus) to help, completed 5 of 11 passes for 58 yards.

Mortensen ended on a good note, completing a 25-yard pass to receiver Cedric Washington during his final series. But he could only get the offense into the end zone once, during a four-play drive that started at the defense's 20-yard line.

"It went OK," Mortensen said. "I was a little disappointed. There were a couple of opportunities we had to get the ball in the end zone and we just didn't do that.

"That's the biggest thing. That's the bottom line, getting the ball in the end zone."

Barthel accomplished that on his first opportunity, guiding the second-team offense on a five-play, 65-yard scoring drive against a patched up first-team defense.

The Hogs held out linebackers Pierre Brown and Sam Olajubutu, defensive lineman Marcus Harrison and defensive end Desmond Sims. Cornerback Darius Vinnett, defensive end Anthony Brown and defensive tackle Fred Bledsoe also saw limited snaps, giving way to younger, inexperienced players.

But Barthel took advantage of the absences, completing a 26-yard pass to Dedrick Poole on third-and-7 on the drive. He followed it with a 24-yard completion that was hauled in with one hand by receiver Cedric Logan on the next play.

Senior tailback De'Arrius Howard, who carried four times for 12 yards, scored the first of his two touchdowns on a 12-yard run to cap the drive.

"He's done well when he's been put under the lights and that's certainly a good sign," Wittke said. "It doesn't bother him. He's a heady kid and isn't afraid of the competition or having the ball in his hands and having pressure put on him."

Said Barthel: "The atmosphere of the game is a little more motivating. I guess you're a little more locked in than practice. Sometimes I might get a little sloppy with my thinking in practice."

But, like Mortensen, Barthel didn't have a flawless day.

He underthrew a pass intended for Chris Baker deep down the sideline and it was picked off and returned for a 92-yard touchdown by cornerback Michael Coe.

Wittke said Barthel "blanked out" a little later trying to hand the ball to receiver Reggie Fish on a play that wasn't designed as an end around. It surprised Fish and the ball squirted free before Barthel pounced on it.

Barthel bobbled a snap on the next play and it resulted in a five-yard loss.

"He has (improved), but I think, again, the consistency factor needs to be there," Wittke said. "He's still prone to making mistakes and that's part of the experience.

Freshmen running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones led all ball carriers with 82 and 43 rushing yards, respectively. Tight end Jared Hicks and Washington had two catches each, while true freshman linebacker Kevin Thornton turned in a scrimmage-best five tackles.

Both quarterbacks will likely return to their reserve roles when the Razorbacks step back on the practice field this week.

Wittke said the Hogs are hoping to have Johnson back on the practice field during Monday night's workout. If he's unable to participate, Wittke said Johnson should be back by Tuesday afternoon at the latest.

"It was good to get the work," Barthel said about Saturday's scrimmage. "I think (Johnson) will be back Monday. Robert is the starter, no doubt. He deserves it. He's been here longer and has played better.

"He's the man. He's doing good. Hopefully we'll win as many games as we can."

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