Under The Magnifying Glass

FAYETTEVILLE -- Zak Clark knows exactly how Robert Johnson feels this week.

The former Arkansas quarterback, who now is a graduate assistant at Fayetteville High, worked hard to win the Razorbacks' starting job in 2001. But his work didn't pay off right away. Clark struggled in the opener against UNLV, was benched by coach Houston Nutt and lost his starting job to sophomore Ryan Sorahan.

"If you're the guy that was starting and all of a sudden, you're going out, it's difficult," Clark said. "But changes happen and competition happens. I think the guys usually left standing are the guys that can get through it mentally. It happens all around the country. I haven't followed Arkansas close, but what I have seen, there's been changes up and down the entire roster just like everybody else (this year).

"But it seems like when it's a quarterback, it's magnified."

Of course, Johnson still could be under center when the Razorbacks meet No. 4 Georgia in Sanford Stadium on Saturday because Arkansas is trying to keep its quarterback situation under wraps. But Nutt and the Hogs have, at the very least, been open to looking at options since Arkansas' 34-17 loss to Auburn last Saturday.

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said it's something coaches, quarterbacks and teams, whether they like it or not, must consider every now and then.

"I'm certainly OK with making a change," Spurrier said. "If it's not working very well, try something else. That's just part of football. That's just part of coaching.

"When you name the guy the starter, I don't think you name him the starter for life or even for the whole year or maybe not even for the whole game."

Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer said he has dealt with a "balancing act," giving sophomore Erik Ainge and senior Rick Clausen chances to hold the starting job. And first year Florida coach Urban Meyer has had to stress his quarterback, Chris Leak, isn't going anywhere despite the junior's struggles in his spread offense the past two weeks.

But Nutt said the Razorbacks -- whether they make a change or not -- are simply looking for answers for a struggling offense.

"You have to make a move when you just feel like you're not getting better, not giving your team the best chance to win," Nutt said about his decisions to replace a starting quarterback. "You still feel like there's hope. You try to go as long as you can and that's always been the way you've always operated.

"There isn't any set standard in when you pull one, how long you stay with one. It's a feel thing. You go by what's going on out there and see what happens."

Nutt doesn't have the quick-hook reputation like Spurrier, but the eighth-year coach is no stranger to yanking quarterbacks. He proved that in 2001, when he shuffled Clark, Tarvaris Jackson, Ryan Sorahan and receiver Gerald Howard, an option quarterback in high school, on and off the field during the 14-10 win against UNLV.

He said every quarterback missed on simple plays like hitches, out routes and stick routes. So he rotated signal callers hoping to find someone to spark the offense.

Sorahan provided it late in the game, guiding the Arkansas to a game-winning touchdown drive. He replaced Clark in the starting lineup the next two weeks before sustaining a shoulder injury that sidelined him the rest of the season.

"The thing you try to stress to (a benched starter) is, the quarterback has got to have a short memory," Nutt said. "You have to forget that, correct your mistakes. You're not going to start this week so I really want you to take a step back.

"You're going to get another opportunity. I can't tell you when. But you're going to get another opportunity and it's how you respond and prepare yourself."

Clark said the demotion was difficult to swallow, but understands that "tough decisions have to be made." He also talked to former Arkansas quarterback Kevin Scanlon, who told him to stay ready for his next opportunity.

Clark got it a little later when Sorahan was injured. He started the final nine games, sharing time with freshman Matt Jones. He later transfered to Central Arkansas.

"I was kind of down for a couple of days, feeling sorry for myself and pouting," Clark said. "But (Scanlon) said, 'When you're the starter, you get a lot of reps in practice. Well you still need those reps even though you're not starting. So if you've got to get them before practice, during practice, after, whatever.'

"After a couple of days, I said, 'All right. I'm going to do that. I'm going to be ready the next time I do get a shot.' I think that really helped me once I did get my chance.

"I was ready instead of just whining and pouting on the bench."

That has been Arkansas quarterbacks coach Roy Wittke's message this season after Johnson was named the starter out of preseason camp.

Johnson has completed 77 of 137 passes for 757 yards with 5 touchdowns and 5 interceptions this season. Mortensen has played in three games, completing 5 of 16 passes for 58 yards with 1 touchdown and 2 interceptions.

Barthel played late in Arkansas' 49-17 win against Missouri State in the opener, but hasn't played since. Dick hasn't played this season, but earned all of Arkansas' scrimmage work during the open week.

"I told the quarterbacks in our meeting (this week), this isn't an easy thing on anybody," Wittke said. "We're all in this thing together. It's not easy on any of the individual quarterbacks. It's not easy on the quarterbacks as a group and it's not easy on us as a coaching staff. This has not been done without a tremendous amount of discussion, without a tremendous amount of evaluation.

"But we'll continue to do whatever it takes to get this thing right."

Wittke said the last time he was part of a team that benched its starting quarterback was at Eastern Illinois in 1994. He said it was a back-and-forth situation between two quarterbacks that lasted much of the season.

"Quarterback is a difficult position to play because you're in a glass house," Wittke said. "You're usually the first one to get praised when things go right. And when things go wrong, you're the first one to get criticized and that's the first place people look at in order to maybe improve things or to create a spark."

Georgia coach Mark Richt, a former college quarterback, faced that type of decision when he worked as quarterbacks coach at Florida State in 1992.

Junior Charlie Ward threw several interceptions and struggled during the first few games of his junior season. But his backup, Danny Kanell, was a true freshman that had only played two years of organized football.

Ward was pulled every now and then, but Florida State always went back to its starter because of Kanell's inexperience. Ward eventually settled in, became Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year and won the Heisman Trophy in 1993.

"I think what happens sometimes is, if you have a No. 1 and a No. 2 that are really, really close, then more than likely, you'd probably make a change a little sooner than if there's a big disparity between the No. 1 and the No. 2 guy," Richt said.

"I would say this, if there was a guy that was very close to Charlie's ability or a real tight race, I think Charlie may not have gotten a chance to get back in there if the other guy came in and played well. But at that moment, we didn't have anybody to do it. So I think a lot of it has to do with how good the No. 2 is."

That question can only be answered by Arkansas' coaches because its current No. 2 -- Mortensen -- doesn't have much experience. Three quarterbacks battled for the starting job this summer, but Johnson earned the job one week into preseason camp.

Johnson got most of the practice repetitions before the first six games because of his inexperience. Mortensen, Barthel or Dick didn't get much practice time.

So Wittke said Arkansas' difficult decision this week must be based on practice performances, how teammates respond and the coaching staff's beliefs.

"I think the biggest thing is you want to have confidence and you want to see that the rest of the group has confidence in what that (quarterback) is doing," Wittke said. "Whenever you're making a personnel decision, there's always an element of, you really don't know about an individual until he's able to respond under the lights in a real game-like situation. That's what makes this so difficult.

"You really truly won't know until Saturday."

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