Johnson Still The Guy, For Now

FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas quarterbacks are off limits to the media for the second consecutive week. After Tuesday's practice, Hogs coach Houston Nutt said nothing has changed as far as who the starter will be against South Carolina on Nov. 5.

Everything looked the same Tuesday as it did in last week's workouts, with four quarterbacks running the same drills during the first 20 minutes open to media.

If nothing has changed, then Robert Johnson is the starting quarterback, at least for now. He took every snap in Saturday's 23-20 loss at No. 4 Georgia. He also was the first under center in the team's goal-line package Tuesday.

So is he still the guy?

"Today," Nutt said. "For today."

What's really going on behind closed practice walls is a mystery. Nobody is saying much, other than that "all" the quarterbacks are getting work with the first team. All being Johnson, Alex Mortensen, Cole Barthel and Casey Dick.

"We got them all some good work," Nutt said. "There was a lot of good fundamentals, a lot of good throwing and catching. We're just putting a real emphasis on the execution of play action and we put in a couple of different wrinkles I think will help us."

"We're just trying to get better. They all did good."

Opponents know little about the three backups, so what's the benefit in folks staying guarded about their status and keeping them off limits for comment?

"I just don't want (the quarterbacks) talking too much about what we're doing," Nutt said. "Another thing is I don't want all (the media) to be blaming everything on Robert Johnson. It's not one man. I don't want him to be put in the situation where he feels like he needs to defend himself.

"It takes 11. It takes everybody. I'm proud of what Robert's done, but for whatever reason, we're not doing as well as we need to be.

"That's why I don't want them talking to the media. I want them concentrating on what they need to do and that's to come out here everyday and keep working and see what happens."

The Razorbacks (2-5 overall, 0-4 in Southeastern Conference play) have four games remaining and need to win out to reach a bowl.

If a change is made, Arkansas will insert an inexperienced quarterback by college football standards which doesn't measure the number of "reps" taken in practice.

"It's real tough to do that in the eighth game of the year," Nutt said. "That's what the problem is. You don't want to do it. You're just trying to do what is best for the team. Last week, I just thought (going with Johnson) was the best decision for our team.

"Next week, it may be different."

Mortensen, a redshirt freshman, has the most significant experience. He has played in three games with his longest outing coming in a 70-17 loss at No. 1 Southern California when he took over for an injured Johnson from the second quarter.

Barthel and Dick are true freshmen. Barthel's only experience was handing the ball off three times to Kyle Dickerson on the final series of a season-opening 49-17 win against Missouri State. Dick hasn't played a snap of college football.

Prep experience means zero with a pair of college defensive ends zeroed in on his helmet's ear holes. Coaches use a variety of practice drills to simulate Saturdays, but the atmosphere and speed of 11 adrenaline-filled defenders gunning for the quarterback is impossible to fake.

"You never will," said Hogs quarterbacks coach Roy Wittke. "That's why quarterback controversies are so popular. Because it's the most visible position not playing well, it's so easy to say, 'Well, this guy would do better or that guy would do better.'

"You really aren't going to know until you give that guy a chance and an opportunity under fire.

"So if you make a move, it has to be based on some level of confidence that is seen in individual drills and in practice on a daily basis."

For what it's worth, the three Razorbacks vying for Johnson's job were successful prep passers.

Mortensen (6-foot-2, 212-pounds) led Fairburn (Ga.) Landmark Christian School to a 29-7 record during his career. His combined statistics as a junior and senior are remarkable as he completed 310 of 510 passes (60.8 percent) for 4,835 yards and 54 touchdowns.

Despite the three snaps in the opener, Barthel (6-2, 205) is the furthest removed from any game experience. He spent the past four seasons in the Atlanta Braves organization before enrolling at Arkansas and joining the team in January. At Decatur (Ala.) High, Barthel passed for more than 3,000 yards and rushed for nearly 1,900 with 36 touchdowns combined.

Dick (6-2, 200) used his feet and strong right arm to lead Allen (Texas) High to a 9-3 record as a senior. He completed 133 of 248 passes (53.6 percent) for 1,942 yards and 14 touchdowns. He rushed 100 times for 401 yards and eight touchdowns.

Johnson (6-2, 212) is a redshirt sophomore. He didn't gain much experience (he was 10 of 19 passing for 209 yards with three touchdowns in six games) last year which could be the reason for the growing pains as a first-year starter.

After falling behind the others because of hernia surgery in June, Johnson emerged as the clear-cut starter early in preseason practices. He has looked more comfortable during the past few games and coaches agree he has improved in some areas with each start.

If Arkansas decides to go another way, it may take another three or four games to get a new quarterback settled.

By then, the season could be over.

"It has an impact on your decision-making process," Wittke said. "You know a little more of what you have with Robert because he has accumulated repetitions and he has played for you in a game.

"We're going to keep taking it a day at a time and we want to make sure we get better on a daily basis.

"We're in no rush to make a decision. Our focus is to be more productive and get better, whether that means a change, I don't know."

Hawgs Daily Top Stories