A Work In Progress

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas quarterbacks coach Roy Wittke is used to looking for his starter before every game.

After all, former Razorback Matt Jones liked to lounge in the locker room as long as possible, waiting for Wittke to slip in and coax him onto the field for pre-game warm ups. But when Wittke began looking for first-year starter Robert Johnson before last Saturday's 28-24 loss to Vanderbilt in Reynolds Razorback Stadium, the third-year coach found him in an unexpected place.

Johnson was already on the field.

"He went out for warm ups a little bit early and I had to go back out and pull him back in so he could come out with the rest of the group," Wittke said Monday. "With Matt, it was the opposite. You were going to the locker room trying to find him."

Of course, it would be hard to blame Johnson if he refused to come out of the locker room Saturday night.

That's because his first road game as starter comes against two-time national champion and top-ranked Southern California. In the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Opposite the 2004 Heisman Trophy winner, Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart.

Gulp. But Wittke said Johnson won't look at it that way.

"You could list a whole ton of things," Wittke said. "Your first start on the road. You have to go across the country. You're playing the No. 1 team in the country, and arguably, maybe the best team of the decade. And you're facing the Heisman Trophy winner on the other side.

"But the focus (for Johnson) has to be on simply getting better. Don't worry about what happened before. Don't worry about what's going to happen."

That policy has worked out so far for the 6-foot-2, 212-pounder, who has completed 29 of 50 passes for 292 yards with 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions in two starts. He struggled to get into rhythm in the season opener against Missouri State, but settled down and displayed much more confidence Saturday.

Johnson completed 7 of 9 passes for 94 yards in the first quarter, helping the Razorbacks jump out to a 10-0 lead. He spread the ball to five different receivers in the quarter, made plays on the run and led Arkansas on 86- and 90-yard drives.

Johnson didn't maintain the same pace, but finished completing 17 of 28 passes for 204 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception. And he's hoping the confidence will carry over to Saturday's game against the Trojans.

"I'm getting more confident in myself and my ability to make plays," Johnson said. "The offense helps me out. They tell me every day that they're proud of me, they trust in me and they believe in me. And they've got my back.

"It feels good as the quarterback to hear your offense say that. I feel like that's a big reason I'm doing well right now. I'm hearing it from my teammates."

He's also shown something else rare for Arkansas quarterbacks. Excitement.

Johnson sprinted downfield and met tailback De'Arrius Howard in the end zone when the senior scored his first touchdown. He also jumped on top of receiver Marcus Monk after the sophomore made a key catch early in the game.

"I think it's kind of neat to see," Wittke said. "He hasn't let that go overboard and gotten himself too revved up. He's not hyper to the extent where he's nervous. He's excited and enjoying himself.

"He loves having the opportunity to be our starting quarterback."

Of course, the inexperienced player made some mistakes against Vandy.

Two of them were costly. He got caught running east and west late in the fourth quarter, scrambling right, turning back left and losing four yards. If he didn't reverse his field, Johnson would've been close to an important first down.

Later, he got too close to the sideline when Arkansas was trying to run out the clock and was knocked out of bounds. The play was part of a 26-second drive that saved plenty of time for Vanderbilt's game-winning touchdown drive.

"He took the loss hard and he took it very personal because he felt like he made a couple of mistakes in the second half that were crucial errors and they were errors that he felt like he could've prevented," Wittke said. "I guess for lack of better terms, they were both mental errors. They certainly weren't from a lack of effort because he was trying to do the right thing in both cases. It just didn't happen."

Said Johnson: "It comes with experience. You make mistakes. We all make mistakes. Sometimes we make mistakes that hurt us in big ways. But we'll learn."

Johnson can't afford any miscues if the Razorbacks hope to upset the Trojans. USC has won 23 consecutive games behind a high-powered offense and opportunistic defense that takes advantage of turnovers. Giving USC gifts is out of the question.

Coach Houston Nutt said Johnson has protected the ball in two games. He did fumble three snaps and throw two interceptions. But all three fumbles were recovered and the interceptions weren't poor decisions.

"He's poised," Monk said. "If he makes a mistake, he doesn't get down on himself. He handles the team well in the huddle. You can tell he's learning more as we play. Everybody has confidence in him and he has confidence in himself."

That will be tested Saturday because Johnson, who traveled all last season as Jones' backup, only earned a few snaps in road mop-up duty at Auburn last season.

The coaching staff included him on the travel roster for a few games during his first season on campus in 2003, but didn't plan on playing him. Johnson got to soak in the sights and sounds, watched Jones lead Arkansas to a 38-28 win at Texas and saw the then-junior at his best in the 71-63, seven-overtime win at Kentucky.

"That's one reason coach wanted me to travel back then, so I could get used to it," Johnson said. "You look around, you see the booing and stuff. You can't let that bother you. You've got to keep a level head as a quarterback. That's important."

Those experiences won't compare to anything Johnson will face Saturday.

Nutt is curious to see how his quarterback reacts during the "tremendous test" against the "best team in America." Wittke said the Razorbacks will still lean on their supporting cast to make plays, but is counting on Johnson to make progress in his third consecutive start.

He doesn't believe his quarterback will "short-circuit" under the pressure.

"There's a ton of people out there that would like to have the opportunity to step inside the Coliseum and go against those people," Wittke said. "Let's live in the moment. Enjoy the moment and play with tremendous enthusiasm and energy and give great effort. If we do that, let the ball game take care of itself."

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