Quarterback Race May Be A Marathon

FAYETTEVILLE -- Casey Dick wasn't naive. He knew there would be more pressure on him this spring, not to mention a few more sets of eyes looking his way.

That should be expected when you practically come out of nowhere to be named Arkansas' starting quarterback as a true freshman.

After starting the final four games last season, Dick had hoped to have the type of spring that erased any doubt that he deserved to take the first snap this fall. But the first two weeks of spring practice haven't gone smoothly for the sophomore.

Dick has struggled with his accuracy and decision-making while trying to learn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's new system. That has given junior Robert Johnson at least the slightest bit of hope that he could reclaim the starting job he lost to Dick toward the end of last season.

"We'll worry about that depth chart after spring," Malzahn said. "We're trying to still learn some things and correct some things, so we're not going to get too caught up in that."

Arkansas' coaches should have a better feel for the quarterback position after the team concludes spring practices with the Red-White game at 1 p.m. Saturday in Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

So far, though, Dick hasn't shown enough of the potential he displayed toward the end of last season. That hasn't led to a quarterback controversy just yet. But coaches hope to see more.

Dick completed only 3-of-12 passes for 38 yards in the first scrimmage, and he had only two completions for 36 yards in last Saturday's second scrimmage -- though one of them was a 19-yard touchdown pass to Peyton Hillis.

"Some people are going to have their off-days; some people are going to have their on-days every once in a while," Dick said. "So it's just something that you're going to have to bounce back from and get better."

Johnson, meanwhile, has taken advantage of the opportunity by showing composure and being more accurate with his passes during the first two controlled scrimmages.

There was talk before the start of spring that Johnson should consider transferring if he hoped to again be a starting quarterback. He was benched after a 23-20 loss at Georgia on Oct. 22 when coach Houston Nutt wanted to find more consistency with his passing game.

But in the first two scrimmages combined, Johnson has completed 11 of his 17 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns.

It's easy to get caught up in the numbers, especially when two quarterbacks are competing for one starting job. But Johnson is not looking too much into them.

"I approach it (as) Casey is No. 1; I'm No. 2," Johnson said. "We just go down and have fun because you can become the starter anytime."

Arkansas' coaches have had a hard time getting an accurate read on any of the quarterbacks -- including third-teamer Alex Mortensen -- because so many of the wide receivers have either been slowed down or unable to practice because of various injuries.

At least five wide receivers have been limited in practice because of injuries, including deep-ball threat Marcus Monk (bruised hip) and most of the team's flankers. That has made it difficult for all of the quarterbacks to get their timing down on passing routes.

"Any time you don't have your receivers out there 100 percent, it's tough to get timing. That goes with a quarterback's performance," Malzahn said. "So, even though it looks bad on a quarterback, it might not always be his fault."

What has made the quarterback race even more interesting this spring is the fact that perhaps the one player talented enough to unseat either Dick and Johnson for the starting job has attended practice but can't take part in it.

Former Springdale High quarterback Mitch Mustain, considered by many as the top quarterback prospect in the country and the Parade High School Player of the Year when he signed with Arkansas on Feb. 1, has watched several practices from the sidelines.

It remains to be seen how Mustain's arrival in August will affect the depth chart. But Arkansas' coaches are concerning themselves more with the quarterbacks they currently have in practice.

"I think they're both doing well right now," quarterback coach Alex Wood said of Dick and Johnson, "But we're going to wait to the end, just to see who's adjusting to what."

And to see which one deserves the majority of the snaps with the first-team offense in the fall.

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