Nutt Re-Evaluating Quarterback Position

FAYETTEVILLE -- Sophomore quarterback Robert Johnson stepped in front of challengers this summer, earned Arkansas' starting job a week into preseason practices and held it throughout the Razorbacks' first six games.

But Johnson's status as Arkansas' starter could be in jeopardy this week.

Coach Houston Nutt said the Razorbacks will "re-evaluate" the position a day after Arkansas' 34-17 home loss to No. 21 Auburn. Once again, the Hogs (2-4, 0-3 in Southeastern Conference) struggled to score in the red zone with Johnson under center, had trouble converting on third down and couldn't muster any big plays in the passing game against one of the SEC's best defenses.

Nutt wasn't ready to make a move Sunday, but said he would broach the subject with his staff before the Hogs practice Tuesday. Arkansas, which plays at No. 4 Georgia on Saturday, must win four of its final five games to become bowl eligible and is in danger of falling to 0-4 in SEC play for the first time since 1996.

"I'm trying to put the best people on the field," said Nutt, who is hoping to improve a passing offense that is last in the SEC and 110th in the nation (138.5 yards a game). "We're going to re-evaluate everything, look at everything very, very hard and just try to keep getting the best people on the field."

It was a different stance for Nutt, who was confident Johnson was Arkansas' best quarterback during the first half of the season. But Nutt is, at least, pondering a change after Johnson completed 17 of 28 passes for 174 yards against the Tigers.

He lost a fumble after Arkansas reached Auburn's 11 in the first quarter and also threw an interception that led to a Tigers' touchdown in the fourth quarter. But the two glaring mistakes were intertwined with poor decisions, bad passes and other miscues that bogged down the offense in an important game.

"We've got to be able to make some plays," Nutt said. "You've got to be able to throw the ball very accurately under some pressure and stay consistent. I feel good about our running game. (We've got to do just) like what Auburn tried to do. They tried to come out throwing, mixing it up and you've got to be able to handle that.

"Last year's quarterback would've handled it."

Nutt was referring to former Razorback Matt   Jones, whose departure left Arkansas with inexperience and uncertainty at its most important position. Johnson relieved Jones in six games in 2004, earned half of the practice repetitions and the experience helped him step in front of freshmen Alex Mortensen and Cole Barthel during summer workouts and preseason practices.

Johnson, who earned praise from Nutt because of his poise and leadership skills the first three games, has completed 77 of 137 passes for 757 yards with 5 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. But Johnson struggled at Alabama last month, completing 11 of 26 passes for 81 yards with an interception in the 24-13 loss.

The Razorbacks spent the bulk of their first open date shoring up a passing offense that hasn't turned in big plays this season. Johnson completed 12 of 17 for 119 yards against Louisiana-Monroe, but Nutt said the problems remained Saturday.

Fullback Peyton Hillis caught a 29-yard screen pass against the Tigers, equaling the Razorbacks' longest pass play of the season. Johnson has managed only seven completions of 20 yards or more in six games. Three have gone to running backs.

"Robert does some very good things," Nutt said. "There's some times I want him to make a few more plays. And you've got to be able to do that consistently."

Arkansas reached Auburn territory five times in the first half and reached the red zone on three occasions Saturday, but only came away with 10 points. The Hogs -- who moved the ball throughout the first half -- managed only 25 yards in the third quarter and were 3 of 11 on third down against the Tigers.

Nutt said Johnson had no trouble setting up and locating receivers, but struggled to deliver the ball accurately. He slipped and threw a bad pass to a wide open Hillis on third-and-2 during Arkansas' first possession in the third quarter. He also one-hopped a pass to receiver Cedric Logan on third-and-7 the next possession.

Auburn scored touchdowns on its first two possessions in the second half.

"That's when the whole momentum just completely turned," Nutt said about Arkansas' offensive inefficiency.

"It's just little bitty things. But those are the plays we have to make."

Nutt considered pulling Johnson midway through the third quarter, when the Hogs' 10-6 halftime lead evaporate. Arkansas managed just 25 yards on 14 plays in the quarter, held the ball 5:54 and were outscored 14-0.

"I thought about it," Nutt said. "You just feel like you're not far away. You're not far off. We're going to get it on this drive. But that's what's hard.

"You don't want to be thinking that."

Nutt knew Johnson "was down like all of us" after the loss and said he'd get a feel for his quarterback's confidence during Sunday's practice. Nutt still believes players have confidence in Johnson, but said "we have to look at that very hard and see."

Mortensen has the most experience behind Johnson, completing 5 of 16 passes for 58 yards with 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions in three appearances. He played in the second half against Southern California -- with Arkansas trailing 42-10 -- and also earned mop-up time against Missouri State and Louisiana-Monroe.

Barthel, a 23-year-old true freshman, played in the closing minutes against Missouri State, but hasn't attempted a pass. True freshman Casey Dick hasn't played, but got plenty of scrimmage work during Arkansas' open week practices earlier this month.

If Arkansas makes a move, it would be asking another inexperienced quarterback to make his first start on the road. Georgia is fifth in the nation in scoring defense (12.7 points a game) and 11th in total defense (286.3 yards a game).

The Razorbacks didn't fare well in Johnson's first road start -- at USC -- but Nutt thought the sophomore was productive before leaving the game with a sore back.

"That's one of the thing that you're hesitant (about), especially against a great defense," Nutt said. "Mortensen would've been our next guy to go in (against Auburn). I'd hate to put him in that situation. But you need a spark, you need a boost when things aren't going right. Those thoughts go through your mind.

"Right now, we'll just look at it hard and try to do what's best for our team."


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