Saturday Grid Report, 4/1

The offense stepped up as Arkansas completed its first week of spring drills with a one-hour scrimmage in the stadium. This story is full of comments from coaches and players. This story is now complete with images from Saturday's practice.

This is no April Fools report. So let's get that out of the way first before we say that it was Johnson & Johnson day at the Arkansas football practice.

Yes, there were plenty of ankles taped. There were plenty of rolls of athletic tape consumed well before the day began.

But, the reason it was Johnson & Johnson day had to do with the brothers Johnson from Waco, Texas. Quarterback Robert Johnson and safety Rasheed Johnson were among the standouts in the eyes of the coaches as the Hogs scrimmaged for about an hour in Reynolds Razorback Stadium to conclude the first week of spring drills.

The quarterback stuck his name back in the mix in the race for the starting quarterback job with a spectacular day with a handful of wonderful throws down the field to hit Marcus Monk in stride to beat impressive coverage. The safety, a walkon listed as a split end in the spring media guide, emerged as the first teamer at free safety by the end of the day.

After taking its lumps for the first four days of spring drills, the offense dominated on Saturday. The offensive red team opened the scrimmage by pounding the defensive front with the running game and gradually took control with the passing game, too.

Most of the damage was done against the second and third defenses, although the first defense didn't ever come close to dominating the way it did earlier in the week, especially on Friday.

"They whipped our butts," said Reggie Herring, the defensive coordinator. "Tip your hat to the offense. They were the better group today. They hurt us in the run and the pass, although most of those long plays were not against our ones. Still, the offense did a lot better than we did."

By the halfway point in the scrimmage, the defense did look whipped. Several times the defenders were bent at the waist with hands on hips.

"We got better today," said Gus Malzahn, offensive coordinator. "The defense whipped us good yesterday, so it was good to see us improve today. The main thing, we got better today.

"I told our guys that if we improve every single day and keep getting better, it's going to be a good spring. Our backs are very talented. We got them the ball in space and created some holes for them up front. And, our protection was very good today. Our offensive line is getting better.

"Robert Johnson had a very good day. He is a very, very talented quarterback. He made some great throws today and if you put it there to Monk, he's going to catch it.

"We had two turnovers (interceptions by Michael Coe and Matt Harris) and that's disappointing, but the offense did some nice things. All of the quarterbacks did some nice things. We have very good competition there right now."

Peyton Hillis was one of the stars in the scrimmage. He made several nice runs and had his way in the passing game, too. He scored one long touchdown on a run through the middle, outlegging defensive end Anthony Brown over the last 25 yards.

"I told Darren McFadden on the sideline after that play that I was pleased with that because Anthony can run," Hillis said. "I know he's a 4.5 guy. If he can't catch me, I did something."

Hillis acknowledged that he recently ran a 4.49 in the 40-yard dash after a winter offseason program that reduced his body fat, but didn't clip any pounds.

"I'm not any lighter," Hillis said. "But I think I am a little quicker."

Malzahn doesn't have any comparison since he's new to the staff, but said, "All I know is he is a very, very good foot athlete. He looks fast to me. He looks the same as he looked to me when I got here this winter, but he is plenty fast enough."

Brown probably didn't help himself with that play or the rest of the scrimmage. After the scrimmage, Herring announced that freshman Antwain Robinson would be promoted to first team at right end ahead of Brown.

"The safeties have been the glaring problem and we have seen that Rashaad has been the most consistent guy at free safety," Herring said. "We made the decision during today's scrimmage to put Rasheed at first team. We'll see how he responds.

"Anthony Brown has not been as consistent at end. Antwain Robinson has been more consistent. We challenged those two (John West and Anthony Brown) after practice today. It's a day-to-day thing. Being number one on our team means something. We'll see how they respond to this.

"Rashaad has been making a steady climb this week. He's been very consistent. He's big and athletic. He's played faster and tackled better in all our drills this week. We have had trouble at the safety spots with tackling. He's getting it done right now.

"It will be a challenge to our coaching to get him ready since he was a scout team wide receiver all of last year. He's having to learn the position, but he's got a chance with the way he tackles and with the athletic nature of his body."

Overall, Herring said the defensive play "was very, very sloppy. We tackled poorly. We are shy of depth at linebacker. Our first three linebackers played well for the most part, but not the other linebackers. You can see why it's so crucial that those freshmen scholarship linebackers that arrive in August be ready to play. We need them to play a major, major role when they get here."

Head coach Houston Nutt liked the "attitude" of the squad throughout the day.

"I liked the fight in this team," he said. "They played like fighting Razorbacks today. We are not there yet and that's why you have spring ball, but we are getting there.

"The O-line got the better of the defense today. We have had a tough time with the speed of the defense all week, but the O-line got better today.

"There were holes there and the protection was improved. We got off more passes today. You can see improvement in the protection. The defense got tired today. I don't worry about them with Reggie over there, so it was good to see the offense have a good day.

"The quarterbacks got protection today. Casey (Dick) struggled at the start with his passing, but he came back pretty well later. I thought Robert Johnson and Alex Mortensen really did some good things. Alex did especially well behind such a young third group in the line.

"I was proud of Chris Baker, John Aaron Rees and you know what you are going to get from Monk.

"Robert has improved. He really went through all of his reads today. He's been doing that this week better than before. Coach (Alex) Woods has gotten him to stick with his keys and reads and go all the way through the progressions. That's an improvement."

Johnson admitted as much.

"I'm more relaxed, more comfortable," he said. "I don't feel a need to leave the pocket and run anymore. I think that's just being more mature and calm. Coach Wood and Coach Malzahn have given me some confidence and made me comfortable with what we are doing. Coach (Chris) Vaughn has talked to me a lot.

"I've finally quit worrying about what anyone thinks about me and just tried to have some fun. If you keep that in mind, that it doesn't matter, then you can have some fun. Yes, we are competing, but that's not what I'm thinking about, just having fun and doing what the coaches show me. I've felt that way all week, but today was the most fun I've had in a while."

Nutt smiled when he was asked about his offensive playmakers.

"You talk about Darren McFadden, Peyton Hillis, Felix Jones and Michael Smith and you know that if the defense takes one bad angle, they are going to break one," Nutt said. "All of them did that today. Peyton is quicker.

"The thing that you see is that we are improving on offense. The first few days, we could barely make an inch against this defense. You just keep working. And, today, here you go."

Offensive line coach Mike Markuson was pleased with the scrimmage.

"We are still a long ways away," he said. "You take Zac Tubbs. He's still not where he'll be in another week. So rusty. He's still not as flexible as you want, but he's lost some weight and is better. Just remember, it's been two years since he played football.

"But he's going against Jamaal Anderson every day. Jamaal has a heckuva bull rush and he has the speed and leverage to get around you. That's a battle that is helping both of them every day. I think both players will tell you that.

"We had a hard time with the defense yesterday, but remember the situation. It was all third-and-8, third-and-10 stuff. That's in favor of the defense. They know what you are doing and are coming after you. Today it was balanced. It was first down a lot of the time. We made some plays today when things were even. They didn't know if it was run or pass and we had them gusssing and confused."

Hillis said the same thing.

"I think we did have the defense confused today," Hillis said. "They were off balance. We were shifting our formation, moving our formation and getting in and out of stuff that they couldn't key off of. I love this system, and we aren't even to the best stuff yet."

Malzahn agreed.

"We are just trying to get them to understand our base," he said. "Someone asked if we have our whole offense in right now, and that's not what we are concentrating on. We just want them to get the base down. When we are past that, then we'll begin to add some things.

"I know some of it doesn't look great yet, but we are trying to look at so many wide receivers. You do that and it affects your timing. We have some routes that are 6 or 7 yard timing routes. If you are rolling receivers or changing the quarterbacks, it isn't going to have any timing or rhythm to it. That's fine. We'll get it. But we have to evaluate these receivers and quarterbacks right now. That's the purpose. What I can tell you is that our backs can really catch the ball. I knew Darren McFadden had good hands and can catch it, but he made some one-hand catches today that were pretty nice. That is something I didn't know. We are going to use those four backs in some ways to create mismatches, sometimes at wide receiver. They can make plays for us there.

"It's going to be a growing process as far as timing. The good thing is that our defense is bringing it every day. We saw their fire zones and have all week. It's a very, very competitive environment and that is helping both the offense and the defense. You know that Coach Herring is going to try to bring it at you each day."

Markuson is pleased with the way his unit has adapted to man-to-man pass protection schemes.

"We've had the man-up protection, but it hasn't been what we emphasized as much as we have the last five practices," Markuson said. "We are more athletic in the line and that helps when you go to that. I think our guys are working hard on it and getting better. Today was better and we'll keep getting better. We've asked them to do a little more in the way of protection this spring and they've stepped up to it."

The Hogs practiced for a little over two hours Saturday, opening with some technical and fundamental work on the practice field and then moving to the stadium for the scrimmage. Around 1,500 attended, including former UA head coach Ken Hatfield. The former UA star said he was in town to attend a Sigma Chi frateriny function Saturday night and promised to return again for the spring game. Hatfield visited with the team after the scrimmage.

John Aaron Rees (24) was bumped as he made his cut and knocked down for a pass interference penalty on this play.

Robert Johnson calls the signals in the scrimmage.

Mike Markuson goes over some plans with the offensive line at the start of Saturday's workout.

Zac Tubbs (from left), Robert Felton, Stephen Parker and Peyton Hillis take a break Saturday.

Fans spread out on the west side at the stadium for Saturday's scrimmage.

Fans came in all sizes, including very small at Saturday's scrimmage.

Ken Hatfield visited practice Saturday.

Photos by Clay Henry

Hawgs Daily Top Stories