Starters Dominate

Arkansas finished spring practice without any key injuries and managed to keep any new offensive packages under wraps. A crowd estimated at 23,000 watched as spring drills came to a conclusion Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Front page image of Marcus Monk by Toby Crawford.

Part of the activities for Razorfest, the event built around Arkansas' Red-White football game, included a flag football game between former players. As it turned out, the main deal, the actual game, turned out to be touch football in full pads.

Arkansas coach Houston Nutt decided on Wednesday to put green jerseys on running backs Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, Peyton Hillis and Michael Smith to protect them from injuries. It did keep those key backs healthy, but it made it hard to evaluate the tackling ability of the second defense.

Nutt winced at questions about the rules for the game afterwards, but didn't second guess his decision.

"In checking around the country the last few days, we found out that many teams lost key players, marquee players in their last scrimmage or game," Nutt said. "I just decided we wouldn't do that.

"If you ask the backs, they were disappointed we wouldn't let our defense tackle them. They would have preferred the contact.

"I don't think their teammates were upset. They know they've proven themselves in the fall and in the case of Michael Smith, in scrimmages this spring. It was the right thing to do. Our number one goal was not to get anyone hurt."

Darren McFadden left no doubt.

"I think I am good on yards after contact and I like to break tackles," he said. "This isn't how we wanted to play the game, but I understand. I think all of our backs are pretty good on breaking tackles. But we finished healthy so that's good. I thought we had a good spring and learned a lot of new things in the offense. We showed that the backs can catch the ball and play at wideout."

McFadden did dazzle on the game's opening play when he hauled in a Casey Dick down the sideline after starting the play split far to the left.

"We've got some new things and that's one of them," he said. "This is going to be a fun offense. The backs want to do what we can to make it easy on the coaches to use us in different ways. I think you saw that we can catch the ball. We didn't use everything, but you don't want to show too much in a game like this."

Indeed, if keeping the backs healthy was the top goal, not showing anything was number two.

"It was on national TV," Nutt said, noting ESPNU's coverage of the game. "We want to leave our opponents for next year guessing. We didn't want to show them our new stuff. We've got things Gus (Malzahn) has added and things Ales (Wood) has added. Why show it? Why give it to them to prepare for this summer."

Malzahn, the new offensive coordinator, said he agreed with that strategy and indicated that some of the base offense was displayed, but not any of his real tricks.

"We ran some new stuff, but not much," Malzahn said. "We did want to use some base stuff, but a lot of it was the running game that we kept from last year."

Nutt said, "I limited Gus pretty good. We did run some of the new routes, but not a lot of them. It's better to hold it back when you are on TV."

The running game was fine, although even that was hard to read because of the green jerseys. Felix Jones scored on touchdown runs of 27, 88 and 14 when the first O-line knocked everyone out of the way both times. He used his speed to do the rest. The other Red scores came on a 4-yard run by Peyton Hillis and a 12-yard Robert Johnson pass to Marcus Monk.

The White team was given 28 points before the start. The Red team (comprised of first teamers and a few seconds) pulled even with 9:35 left on the final Jones run. The starters won it with 3:58 left when Monk hauled in the Johnson pass.

The game was four quarters, but not in real football time. They were shortened to about half that because of a running clock.

"I'd say it feel like halftime right now," Malzahn said. "We didn't have time to do much. But that's okay. We knew that coming in what we were going to do."

For the Red team, Jones led all rushers with 137 yards on five carries. Darren McFadden had nine rushes for 49 yards. Peyton Hillis had three runs for 12 yards.

Quarterbacks Casey Dick and Robert Johnson alternated under center for the Red. Dick completed 9 of 16 for 95 yards with one interception, a Matt Stoltz pick on a diving catch just before halftime. Johnson was 5 of 6 passing, with the only Red team sack. Receivers made him look good with several acrobatic or one-handed catches on passes that were far from on target.

Hillis and Monk had the two highlight-reel catches. Monk's was a 17-yarder over the middle that he snared with a long, high reach of his right hand.

The White team, led by Alex Mortensen at quarterback, never threatened against the starting defense. The White team finished with a net of 2 yards on 26 snaps. Mortensen missed on all 7 of his pass attempts. His wideouts, comprised of the third team, were stuffed at the line of scrimmage in bump and run coverage by corners Chris Houston and Matterral Richardson.

Event organizers estimated the attendance at 23,000, noting many fans came and left during the scrimmage. They said there may not have been a time where 23,000 were in the stands at one time, but that many left and others took their spots. Attendance at Razorfest festivities, event organizers estimated, topped 30,000.

Nutt praised fans for attending the event, raving about the atmosphere.

"It was Easter weekend and I am so proud of our fans for turning out," he said. "It was a great day and I thank them."

Nutt was also proud of his players for turning in a solid spring, but he said the quarterback play left plenty of room for improvement in the spring finale.

"I think we could have done better there," Nutt said. "I think our quarterbacks would tell you they could do better. We missed some reads. We threw it behind our receivers and we could have sat in the pocket better.

"This was a good spring for our quarterbacks. They got better, but they still have a lot of room for improvement.

"Casey Dick started out number one based on what he did the last four games and he is still number one. But, I think he would tell you that he could have done a lot better. By the same token, Robert Johnson did some good things and improved. We'll evaluate everything they've done over the next few weeks."

Malzahn agreed with that assessment.

"We wanted to see what they could do in our base and that's what we ran today," Malzahn said. "There was some good, but there was also some not so good.

"I will say that they are going to improve rapidly this summer. They know what to work on. It's my experience that after you put it in and they can work on it and get their timing, it gets better fast. But we've come a long way in 15 practices. We'll be much different when we come back in August and then we have another month at that point."

Asked about the lack of some of the no-huddle plays that Malzahn used at Springdale High School, Nutt said, "We didn't want that on TV. We've put some of it in and we will have it. It's a great weapon. We'll have it. We ran it some the last three weeks. Had this not been on national TV and had there not been that kind of exposure, maybe some of it would have been used today."

Concerning injuries, trainer Dean Weber was all smiles.

"We'll do complete physicals next week, but I don't think we are going to have any surgeries," Weber said. "That's the great part of today. Rod Coleman has that nagging hamstring and there are a couple of others bruised a little coming in today, but I haven't seen anything today that is a concern."

Defensively, coordinator Reggie Herring was pleased, too.

"Our linebacker depth is still a major concern and safety is still a bit of a worry, but it's all getting better," Herring said. "Michael Grant has shown that he has ability to play that position and play it in the SEC. He has true speed. We have depth in our front four. We like our first team linebackers along with Weston Dacus.

"It's been a very good spring. Our defense has developed some leadership, chemistry and has basically come together. We have had a very good spring. We are further along in our system and understand how to work."

Defensive line coach Tracy Rocker likes his inside anchors, Marcus Harrison and Keith Jackson. And, he likes the way the backups have developed this spring.

"Marcus Shavers, Fred Bledsoe, Cord Gray and Ernest Mitchell have come along," Rocker said. "Bledsoe really made strides in his approach to practice this spring. He needs a good summer, as do the rest of those guys in the defensive line. Mitchell made a move at the end of the spring. And, our backup ends, De'Andre Bryant and Michael Hall, showed signs at the end of spring. They need some work in the weight room, but they showed some talent."

Secondary coach Louis Campbell said it was hard to tell much about the experiment at safety where Michael Grant is working at first team.

"He did make one hit on the Red sideline where he got someone pretty good, even if it may have been out of bounds," Campbell said. "Otherwise, you couldn't tell much because there was never any real stress on the safeties.

"Even if that one hit was out of bounds, I'll take the penalty there. At least he showed that he'll hit someone and we hadn't seen much of that. His coverage and ability to run has helped us there. Otherwise, I'll say it was the best game of touch football I've ever seen."

If there was a disappointment in the spring, it was the injuries at wide receiver where the heavy route running installed by Malzahn took its toll in the first week.

"We saw that Marcus Monk is a great, great player and he made a brilliant catch again today," Malzahn said. "Cedric Washington needs to get healthy and be consistent. Otherwise, we need to improve. I do appreciate the way John Aaron Rees battled all spring. He had some nagging injuries, but never complained and never missed a play. He showed he is very, very tough and we noticed that."

Darren McFadden makes a cut in the Red-White game.

Felix Jones scored three touchdowns Saturday.

Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn indicated the Hogs didn't give away any secrets in the Red-White game.

Marcus Monk goes high for a one-hand catch in the Red-White game.
Photo by Toby Crawford

Darren McFadden jogs towards Danny Nutt's pass in warmups Saturday before the Red-White game.

The Red line prepares for a shotgun snap.

Houston Nutt spent some time with UA signees, including here with Damian Williams. In the background is former UA basketballer Almer Lee.

Gus Malzahn works with the wideouts before the Red-White game.

The top linebackers go through their pre-game routine.

Photo by Tom Ewart and Clay Henry

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