State Of The Hogs: QB Controversy

Some are never happy without a quarterback controvery. They love it. It gives them something to talk about, or perhaps complain about. It's the nature of the human spirit.

Quarterback is the most important position in football. It's the position that makes things happen both good or bad in every football game.

If you've got a good one, you've always got a chance. If you don't have a QB, it won't matter what else you have. You will probably fail as a team.

Those folks who ache for a QB controversy will create one at the drop of a center snap. They'll invent a quarterback controversy the first time there's a failed third-and-11, never mind that most third-and-11s come up empty anyway.

So what do we make of this spring battle on the Arkansas campus between Casey Dick, Robert Johnson, Alex Mortensen and Mitch Mustain for the starting spot at quarterback?

Mitch Mustain? He isn't even on the UA campus right now. He hasn't yet gone through graduation ceremonies at Springdale High. He isn't in the mix. Or is he?

Oh, if you think he's not in the mix right now, you are wrong. I have Mitch right in the middle of this QB battle. For one, his presence has to be on the mind of those other three. They know Mitch will soon be on campus and for the last two years he's been throwing the passes to the routes his future teammates are trying to perfect right now. Yes, that was in high school, but he was throwing them to Division I players Damian Williams, Ben Cleveland and Andrew Norman, all future UA teammates, too. That's who he is working out with now and it is not a wasted exercise.

Any thought of what is going to happen next fall should include Mustain. At least, I'm going to keep him in mind. I'll be stunned if Mustain isn't in the middle of the battle come August.

In my mind, the Hogs are trying to figure out who is the one they'll line up against Mustain. The coaches would never dare say that or even intimate as much. But that's the exercise I think they're going through right now in spring drills.

So who will Mitch be facing? Dick was the leader of the pack when spring drills started since he finished the season as the starter. I assumed it wouldn't take him long to firmly entrench himself as the first teamer this spring. I wondered if Mortensen might claim the second spot. In fact, I was almost surprised that Johnson even returned for the spring semester. I halfway expected him to transfer, just like Cole Barthel did over the Christmas holidays.

I got that wrong. In fact, through the halfway point of spring practice, Johnson has been fairly impressive. Dick has struggled. I thought his strength late last season was his accuracy on the short passes. That's been missing so far this spring. He has thrown low and wide on plenty of the short passes to the backs in Gus Malzahn's offense. Those should be the easy passes, but they haven't been easy for Dick.

Johnson struggled last fall when poise and patience were called for in the dropback scheme. He appeared to have happy feet when things began to collapse as far as protection. Perhaps that hit to the back on the quarterback sneak that knocked him out of the USC game caused happy feet. Maybe it was the way Alabama's defense blitzed and sacked him the next week. Either way, Johnson struggled enough that Dick was summoned from the scout team.

So how is he different now? What makes anyone think he can do it now when he couldn't do it last spring?

It's a good question and one that may not can be answered by watching spring practices. You may not know until real games are played. Afterall, some may excel in practice only to fold under game pressure.

I will say that those who say Johnson is performing now just like he played in practice last year are wrong. He is much better, from what I can tell.

It may be that he now trusts the pass protection. He seems to stand in the pocket more comfortably now than he ever did last year.

Part of that is just a year of age. He's a junior now. He's played in the SEC, even if not well.

And, it may be that he knows he's failed once and has nothing to lose. That sometimes relaxes a player. Ask Zak Clark. He was much better at try number two than he was in his first chance at playing QB in the SEC.

Johnson says he's now to the point that he's just having fun. He has no worries and nothing to lose. That's surely some of it.

I will say that anytime you are the hunter, you go at things with a different mindset than when you are the hunted. Dick is now the hunted and Johnson is the hunter. There may be something to that.

Then, there's one other theory. Perhaps Gus Malzahn and Alex Woods are pushing different buttons than Roy Wittke pushed last year. Maybe a change in communicator has helped the communication and that's the difference. For sure, there are some changes in the offense.

I can't tell you why it's clicked for Johnson now when it didn't last year, but I can tell you that he looks different and acts different. He's smiling more. He looks comfortable and sure of himself.

It was never about ability with Johnson. Anyone who watched him warm up liked his arm and the rest of an extremely athletic body.

I don't know what the next week of spring ball is going to bring. I can't tell you which one of these quarterbacks is going to play the best. I can't say who will be the one that shines in the spring game in eight days. Perhaps Mortensen steps forward. Maybe Dick will find that solid touch and command of the short passing game that seemed to carry him late last season.

It's too early to name a starter. But I will say that I've seen enough to know that Mitch Mustain is going to be a factor when he arrives on campus.

It's also too early to have a full-blown quarterback controversy. But, I figure one is lurking out there somewhere. The quarterback race is going to be front and center this summer and again in August.

I've been around long enough to know that quarterback controversies can't be avoided. I've seen enough this spring to know that Casey Dick has opened the door and that Robert Johnson was quick to step through that portal. As you can tell, I think Mitch Mustain was already in the room waiting to see who would join him in the battle.



CLAY HENRY IS THE PUBLISHER OF HAWGS ILLUSTRATED, A STEPHENS MEDIA GROUP PUBLICATION. HIS COLUMN APPEARS EACH FRIDAY. E-MAIL: CLAY@NWAONLINE.NET

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