The new starting quarterback at the University of Arkansas looks a lot like the one that started last season, but Razorback coaches believe he is going to play at a much higher level than did last season before exiting stage right.
Redshirt junior Robert Johnson - who started the first seven games of the 2006 season before turning things over to true freshman - has regained his No. 1 spot heading into the 2007 opener against visiting USC on Sept. 2.
New offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn announced to the team during Wednesday night's closed practice and UA head coach Houston Nutt told that media soon afterwards that Johnson had earned that honor over true freshman Mitch Mustain and the injured Casey Dick.
"I have talked with each of the quarterbacks and feel good at this time that we are going to name Robert Johnson our starting quarterback," Nutt said. "I tell you what - Robert has improved and we want everybody to get behind him. Our team is excited."
??Because of Dick's back injury and his lack of practice time, the UA staff felt it had to go ahead and make a choice between Johnson and Mustain.
"Robert Johnson is a little older and I think he is much better than he was a year ago and we are going to keep him going right there and he will keep improving and keep getting better," Nutt said.
Johnson was 89-of-158 last season for 876 yards passing last season while throwing for five touchdowns with six interceptions.
??Nutt thinks Johnson has adapted really well to the tutelage of new quarterback coach Alex Wood, a former NFL offensive coordinator who coached Daunte Culpepper.
"I think number one is his relationship with Coach Wood," Nutt said. "He is making much better decisions. His decision making is much better now than it was a year ago. It is just hard to replace experience. He is experienced, been out there more and is familiar with things."
Johnson was understandably excited to win back the starting job.
"I was happy and it was fun," Johnson said. "There was a lot of pressure on and I was relieved. I know I have the respect and trust of my teammates."
Mustain, the nation's top prep quarterback last season, took the announcement in stride.
He had a great fall and I have a lot to learn," Mustain said. "I support him and I think the whole entire team does."
"I did what I could this fall and I did everything I could and learned as fast as I could, but it didn't work out for me," Mustain added. "I've still got a long way to go. I still have four or five years to go and I am not even close to where I should be."
Nutt said that Mustain should remain ready to go at a moment's notice.
"We have got two quarterbacks now and we need both of them," Nutt said. "We expected to have three, but we've got two and both of them are very, very important. I just feel like Robert is just a little bit further along."
Johnson looked solid in a season-opening win over Missouri State last season and threw for 204 yards and 3 touchdowns in the first three quarters while leading his team to a 24-13 lead over Vanderbilt – a game that turned into a 28-24 loss.
He was 8-of-16 for 91 yards last season at USC before getting drilled in the back, suffering and injury and headaches and his season went downhill from then before being replaced by Dick.
Johnson said the thought of not being a starter again one day never entered his mind.
I never thought anything like that," Johnson said. "I just thought I had to forget about it and just come out and prove myself again. I am more comfortable, feel more experienced and more confident in myself."
Most thought that Dick would pick up where he left off last season after leading the Razorbacks to a 2-2 mark in the final four games, but a lingering back injury suffered in the spring has kept him out of a significant part of the preseason camp.
"He (Casey) finished the last four games as we all know and we were expecting that to carry on," Nutt said. "But we have to get him well - that is a no brainer.
There is no use pushing it and after the doctor's advice in Little Rock," Nutt said, "we just felt like we were going to keep the core exercises going with the lower back and be very, very cautious with that every single day and getting him well."
Johnson said the competition with Mustain has only helped the both of them.
"It is very good and we are helping each other out a lot," Johnson said. "It has been great competition and it has brought out the best in both of us. He knew more of the offense and I know more about playing on the college level, which is so different from college, and I have helped him with things that you can only learn by getting thrown in the fire and learning."
Mustain echoed that line of thinking.
I am going to keep working for it and keep fighting for it," Mustain continued. "He is, too. He earned it, but we are going to keep pushing each other."
O o o
Nutt thought he's team was a bit slow and sluggish, but still got in some good work Wednesday night during its closed workout.
Missing from the workout was injured wideout London Crawford – expected back next Monday - linebacker Weston Dacus and defensive end Anthony Brown.
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