All-Purpose Threat

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas quarterback Robert Johnson admits that running back Peyton Hillis has gotten him in trouble a few times this preseason.

It's almost unavoidable. Johnson said curiosity can overtake him when he hands Hillis the ball. The sophomore turns, watches the 6-foot-2, 225-pound battering ram hit the line and stares in disbelief as he gobbles up yardage.

But, in the process, Johnson fails to carry out his play-fake responsibilities.

"He's a special athlete, but sometimes it gets you in trouble," Johnson said. "You feel like you'll miss something if you don't turn around and watch him run the ball."

Johnson could be getting in more trouble if Arkansas' plans materialize in 2005.

Coach Houston Nutt has big expectations for Hillis in a new-look offense that had been tailored to quarterback Matt Jones' strengths the past three years. The Conway native is slated to start at running back during Saturday's season opener against Missouri State and has been working at other positions like fullback, tight end and H-back this preseason. Hillis also will enter the season as one of Arkansas' kickoff returners and is second in line behind cornerback Michael Coe on punt returns.

Hillis is going to be kept busy. The all-purpose threat relishes the possibility.

"They said they're going to get the ball to me as much as possible," Hillis said. "They trust the ball in my hands. That's awesome. I'm glad they trust me.

"I'm just really excited about it."

So are the Razorbacks, who are looking for a variety of weapons to help ease the transition under a new quarterback.

"He's a guy that we need to include in a lot of things that we do," quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator Roy Wittke said. "He's a tremendously versatile player. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. He can move out of the backfield and line up wide. He can catch the ball in a crowd. He does things naturally.

"He's a guy that can create matchup problems and he's handled the bulk of what we've given him. There's no question he's a guy that we're going to highlight."

Hillis was a likely candidate after 2004, when he amassed 240 rushing yards, 97 receiving and 128 on kickoff returns as a true freshman. He also scored a team-high eight touchdowns and was Arkansas' most effective short-yardage back.

But the Hogs didn't get as much out of Hillis as they hoped. He sustained three broken vertebrae in his back against Florida and was limited for several weeks.

Hillis is healthy now and spent part of the off-season successfully shedding some of his "baby fat." He leaned down, gained muscle and prepared for the multi-faceted role that will likely keep him on the field.

"We're excited about using him in a lot of different ways, getting him the football and letting him play running back at a lot of different positions," Nutt said. "The good thing about him is he doesn't mind catching it in a crowd. He'll go up and get a ball. He'll catch it over the middle. I think he can cause some problems for people.

"The defense, they're going to be very aware of where he's located."

Wittke said it's hard to put a percentage on how much Hillis will line up at different positions this season. He said Arkansas' goal is to find the best matchup.

Hillis believes his role will likely change from week to week. His best guess last Friday was that he'd line up at tailback or fullback about 60 percent of the time, which would leave the rest for tight end and H-back.

"When you think about all we've got him doing, returning kicks, he's in the backfield and splits out, it gives him more touches," said receiver Marcus Monk. "We know that when he gets the ball in his hands, he's going to do something positive."

Said Johnson: "You can use Peyton for anything. He can catch. He can run, block, whatever. Defenses are going to have to respect him. His role is really big."

It's not unusual in college football, where Southern Cal running back Reggie Bush has become the quintessential all-purpose back.

Hand Bush the ball and he's capable of breaking tackles, picking up first downs and slipping into the end zone. Split him out wide, throw a pass and the results could be the same. Then there's his threat as a return man.

Hillis is hoping to get a similar opportunity with the Razorbacks.

"I don't know how much these roles will have the ball in my hands," Hillis said. "But, as of right now, they have me on the field a lot. They've stretched me to a lot of different positions and I'm coming to it quite well. I'm learning the plays real well.

"But like I said, I don't know how much I'll get the ball in my hands. I guess that's up to coach Nutt and whether he trusts me or not."

That shouldn't be any question.

Hillis will have plenty of tasks to juggle in his all-purpose role this season, but Wittke said he's a "savvy kid" that has handled the responsibilities. He lost about 10 pounds and missed practice time because of a stomach virus last week, but still edged senior De'Arrius Howard for the starting job in a backfield that includes Dedrick Poole, Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Kyle Dickerson.

There's little doubt he'll be one Arkansas' offensive players to watch in 2005.

"I think last year was a big steppingstone for him because he got to feel the flow of the game," said receiver Cedric Washington. "He got to feel the hard hits. He got to be in the Swamp's and things like that and actually got to feel the atmosphere of the game. Now, I think his main thing is to go out there and do exactly what he did last year and just keep working hard and just keep playing hard and never stop pumping his legs, which is what he doesn't do. He never stops pumping his legs.

"If you have a guy of that caliber you want to utilize him as much as you can."

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