State of the Hogs: Robert Johnson

Now that the Hogs have named a starting quarterback for the opener against Southern Cal, how did Robert Johnson get there. Here's a take from HI.com publisher Clay Henry

The popular thought from those who have been at a few Arkansas football practices the last two weeks -- and even with some who have seen zero workouts -- is that Robert Johnson is the starter ahead of Mitch Mustain because no one wants Southern Cal to be the first test for a true freshman.

I agree with the premise that starting a true freshman for his first game against one of the nation's elite is a tough task. Avoid it if you can.

But I don't think that's the deal right now. I think Johnson is the best player right now. He's outplayed Mustain in the first two weeks of fall drills, much to the chagrin of some in the Arkansas fan base.

The excitement around Arkansas football right now is at an incredible high considering the team is coming off back-to-back losing seasons. Mustain is partly responsible. He is the first ever consensus national player of the year in the modern time of global recruiting services from our state.

Yes, there is also much buzz about the arrival of Gus Malzahn and his no-huddle passing offense.

Malzahn and Mustain are to Arkansas fans what the Tiger Woods/Phil Mickelson first-round pairing in the PGA Championship means to golf fans.

Most figured if Mustain didn't claim the job it would be because Casey Dick righted what was a shaky hold on the number one quarterback slot after spring drills. Oddly, Dick was doing just that when his back injury put him on the shelf. No one gave Johnson a ghost of a chance to be the last man standing in fall camp.

The good news is that not only did Mustain not disappoint, he's done nothing to tarnish his reputation. Those in the know who have seen him practice give glowing report about his potential. But, in the same breath, they will tell you, "He's just not ready."

Why is he not ready? He's thrown too many pass interceptions, often the kind that end up in the wrong end zone. Johnson had one 11-on-11 session where he had the ball stripped from behind on a weakside corner blitz, but he's thrown few interceptions.

Houston Nutt said the battle would come down to the man who moved the team most consistently and eliminated mistakes on a consistent basis. That's been Johnson.

There are questions that beg to be answered. What happened to get Johnson turned around? Why? How? And, can he play the way he's played in practice when it counts for real, like against USC, Alabama, Auburn or Tennessee?

I don't think we know the answer to that last question, but I'd like to take a crack in some of those others.

You have to start with Alex Wood, the new quarterback coach. His methods have worked with Johnson while Roy Wittke's did not. That's not to say another year under Wittke would have made things click with the junior from Waco, Texas. But I doubt it.

In fact, I doubt Johnson would still be on campus if Wittke was still around. Johnson was a shattered quarterback after last season. It took a fresh start with both Wood and Malzahn to get him going again. And, he's going great.

One of the major things I see different from last year is that Johnson's decisions are faster, sharper and better. It's obvious to me that Wood has done a fine job of getting Johnson to think his way through the reads a quarterback must make both before the snap and after.

Last fall, seldom did I see Johnson's head turn from one spot to the next and then the next. I'm guessing Johnson checked his first option, but never his second or third. I see him making those checks now and doing it in a quick, easy process.

Part of it might be a change in systems, so the credit there would go to Malzahn. But it's got to be more than that. The man in the meeting room leading the quarterbacks has to get a lot of the credit, too. And, that's Wood, the man who coached Miami quarterbacks to an NCAA championship under Dennis Erickson and also mentored Dante Culpepper in the NFL.

"He's been great, really good with me and all of us," said Johnson. "What's he done? He's helped us understand where everyone is going to be on the field."

Someone with knowledge of the way both Wittke and Wood operate in the meeting room said both are talented coaches, but use different approaches to get to the end result. Both can explain the way defenses must be attacked and teach the reads, but Wood's approach is more interactive. Johnson agreed with that.

"I've talked a lot with Coach Wood, a lot," Johnson said. "We've spent a lot of time going over our offense. He makes you draw it on the board in the meeting room and talk about every position, what they do under every situation that comes up. What's happened is that it's helped me get to a point where I know where everyone is going to be. I know it a lot better."

Wood affirmed that he makes his quarterbacks verbalize the entire offense in meetings in front of the other quarterbacks. It's not about showing them and then getting them to nod their head when a question is asked.

"I think that's where confidence comes into play," Wood said. "If you know it, you are going to be able to play with confidence. I see Robert as a more confident quarterback right now. He's regained that confidence and almost a cockiness that you have to have to play that position. He's playing very well right now."

Obviously, Wood saw film of last season when he took over as QB coach. Does he see a difference in Johnson from last season?

"Yes, I've watched him from last year," Wood said. "But there were times when I saw him make some very good plays. I saw that he had talent, some real ability. He has all the tools."

That's what Wood told him when they talked about Johnson's plans at the start of the summer.

"There were a couple of times where I didn't know if I was going to come back," Johnson said. "I was down. I had lost my confidence. But both Coach Wood and Coach Malzahn told me to be patient. That's what I've done."

The battle with Mustain over the last 10 days has been intense, but friendly. Johnson said each has helped the other in the process. "There are things that Mitch knew about the new things in the offense better than I did and he was willing to show me," Johnson said. "There were things I knew about playing in SEC games that I could show Mitch, and things about what we'd done in the past. We weren't keeping things from each other. We were trying to help the other one get better and make this team better."

Friends or not, Mustain's presence got Johnson's motor running each day for practice. The old guy admits he noticed plenty when a crowd of 6,500 cheered the new guy's every move and hardly gave him a courtesy clap in the first major scrimmage of the fall.

"I understood that," Johnson said. "Mitch is the hometown boy. If it had happened in Waco, I think people there would have cheered for me. I thought that was normal."

But he did pay attention.

"It fired me up," Johnson said. "But I understood it. What I know is that the things that are said or happen in the stands don't matter. What matters is that I finally have the trust of my teammates and my coaches. That's all that matters. I know I've done that and I'm having fun with football right now.

"But I'm not going to try to hide the fact that it did fire me up."

That may be the most normal thing of all. Robert Johnson not only has some confidence, he's got some fire. And, he's got a coach that has found the right approach to teach him how to play quarterback.

This thing is hardly over. Mustain hasn't conceded and will use all of his awesome talent to push Johnson every step of the way this season. It's what you want at every position on the football field and one of the reasons the Hogs have a chance to be better this season.

Wood acknowledged that when he talked about Mustain's awesome talent and potential after a practice earlier this week, a night during which Mustain cut loose some terrific lasers.

"Mitch? He was special tonight," said Wood, who has seen NFL-like lasers up close. "He had some real velocity tonight. He was making some great throws."

Sit tight. This is going to be fun.

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