FAYETTEVILLE -- Arkansas' students have wrapped up midterm exams, and soon voters will take part in midterm elections.

The Razorbacks (5-1, 3-0 SEC) have reached the midway point, as well.

After six games and two starting quarterbacks, Arkansas has completed the first half of the season with a passing grade -- and a No. 15 ranking.

Since opening the season with a 50-14 loss to No. 3 Southern California on national TV, freshman Mitch Mustain has taken over at quarterback, Matt Hewitt has adjusted to his move from free safety to linebacker and running back Darren McFadden has become the Southeastern Conference's leading rusher.

More importantly, there is a sense of hope that had been missing from the last few falls. Arkansas is ranked for the first time in three years and only one win shy of the six needed to be bowl eligible.

Arkansas coach Houston Nutt is no longer on the hot seat, and the growing criticism of him has quieted with the team's surprising 3-0 start in the Southeastern Conference.

The Razorbacks stand alone atop of the SEC West, and surprisingly are the only team still undefeated in conference play.

"You want to be SEC champions, and you'd love to be undefeated. You think that way," Nutt said. "But if you pinned me down and said you're going to be undefeated (in the SEC on) Oct. 15 with our schedule, I'd probably say probably not."

Yet they are.

At this time last year, the Razorbacks were 2-4 and one loss into a three-game slide that would keep them home for Christmas for a second straight year. It also led to Nutt making a change at quarterback.

But the breaks have gone Arkansas' way over the first six weeks of the season. The wind blew just enough to alter a potentially game-winning kick by Vanderbilt's Bryant Hahnfeldt.

And Alabama kicker Leigh Tiffin had a complete meltdown, missing three field-goals attempts and an extra point in Arkansas' 24-23 double-overtime win.

Life is good right now in Fayetteville.

But there is still another half to the season.

QUARTERBACKS: Mustain Learning On The Fly

No position on the team got off to a more shaky start.

Robert Johnson began the season as the starter, completing 12-of-25 passes for just 110 yards with two interceptions in a 50-14 loss to Southern California.

He was replaced the following week by true freshman Mitch Mustain, who has guided Arkansas to five straight wins -- the bottom line for any starting quarterback -- despite completing just 7-of-22 passes against Alabama and 5-of-13 against Southeast Missouri State.

Mustain tossed three touchdown passes in a 21-19 win over Vanderbilt that looks better now than it did then.

In Arkansas' signature 27-10 win over Auburn, Mustain completed 5-of-6 passes in a tone-setting first quarter to help set up a 279-yard rushing day by the Hogs.

Mustain nearly got the Hogs beaten with an overtime interception against Alabama, but came back with a game-winning touchdown pass to Ben Cleveland in the second overtime.

Fans have been impressed with Mustain's composure in an offense he didn't expect to run this season, plus the fundamentals and ball-handling skills he honed under coach Gus Malzahn at Springdale High.

Casey Dick, last year's starter in the final four games, has played well in two games -- against Utah State and Southeast Missouri State -- completing 10-of-14 passes for 157 yards and two touchdowns. He seems fully recovered from preseason back discomfort.

"Mitch is our starter," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. "Casey is a year older, and I'm sure glad we've got him."

As Mustain matures, he'll perhaps be given more freedom to check out of certain plays and look for secondary receivers. For now, he's learning what he can and can't do in the Southeastern Conference.


RUNNING BACKS: Quality And Depth Abounds

In six games, Arkansas has shown a rushing game that can thrive no matter who carries the ball.

The Razorbacks rank first in the Southeastern Conference and fifth in the nation with a rushing average of 235.2 yards per game.

Sophomore Darren McFadden accounts for an SEC-leading 104.2 of that, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. That figure likely would swell if he didn't have to share touches with sophomore Felix Jones, who averages 78.2 yards per game and 9.6 yards per carry.

The rotation keeps both backs fresh. The duo's camaraderie also keeps them from getting jealous.

"We are so fortunate to have a quality backfield and the depth we have, especially playing in the SEC," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. "Felix is like a starter to me. You have starters in both him and Darren.

"I like the way they praise each other, congratulate each other. They are good friends and it's good to see that."

Arkansas' running back talent doesn't end with McFadden and Jones, as evidenced in the Hogs' 63-7 victory over Southeast Missouri State on Saturday.

Freshman Michael Smith posted a career-high 116 yards and two touchdowns, taking advantage of increased playing time.

Saturday, for the second consecutive game, Arkansas had two running backs (Smith and Jones) rush for more than 100 yards. McFadden and Jones both topped the 100-yard mark two weeks earlier at Auburn.

"I believe that we all are like starters, all as good as starters," Jones said.

Fumbles early in the season were the only things keeping this grade from being an A-plus.

Jones lost fumbles three times in a season-opening loss to Southern California, and McFadden fumbled on the Utah State 1-yard line in the Razorbacks' second game.


RECEIVERS: Too Much Focus On Monk

Just because Arkansas is still sticking with a mostly run-first offense, don't think the Razorbacks' receiving corps isn't getting the job done.

While Arkansas is averaging 148.7 passing yards per game to rank 11th in the Southeastern Conference and 105th in NCAA Division I-A, the receivers are doing their job for most part.

"As a group, at times they play well," Arkansas offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Gus Malzahn said. "Obviously, we know what we have in Marcus Monk and we've got some young guys that play well at times and at other times need to improve.

"But we're going to keep after it and continue to work to get better."

Monk continues to be the team's most dangerous target through the air, with 19 catches for 384 yards and three touchdowns through the first six games.

The only thing holding this group back from a higher grade, though, is Arkansas' tendency to zero in on Monk -- and only Monk -- at times.

Of the 67 passes caught by the Razorbacks this season, 45 have been hauled in by the receiving corps. But of those 45, Monk has brought down 42 percent to make him too much of the team's focal point when going to the air.

Behind Monk, true freshman Damian Williams has led the way with 12 receptions for 153 yards and one touchdown. But Williams and fellow freshmen London Crawford and Ben Cleveland have also been somewhat invisible at times this season. For the passing game to be used more effectively, others besides Monk are going to have to be utilized.


OFFENSIVE LINE: The Strength Of The Team

Perhaps the most significant barometer for success for the Arkansas offensive line can be measured in the black and white reality of statistics.

The line, which has undergone some minor cosmetic surgery with reshuffling of personnel, has been one of the marquee headliners through the first six games of the season.

Sophomore center Jonathan Luigs, senior guard Stephen Parker, senior tackle Zac Tubbs, junior guard Robert Felton and senior tackle Tony Ugoh, have made the most of their abilities.

Also part of the equation are senior center Jeremy Harrell and junior tackle Nate Garner.

"I think having a lot of juniors and seniors has helped a lot," Parker said. "It's not like we've had to rely on a lot of redshirt freshman to get the job done. Our experience really has been the key."

And the numbers illustrate that point.

Arkansas is averaging 28.2 points per game and 283.8 yards in total offense. The team also averages 235.2 yards per game in rushing offense, which is tops in the Southeastern Conference.

In addition, the Razorbacks have allowed only five sacks for a total of 34 yards, also tops in the SEC.

Sophomore tailback Darren McFadden has benefited the most from the work of the offensive line. He's gained 625 yards, which translates into 104.2 per game. That is tops among SEC running backs.

"Our reward is watching our backs gain a lot of yards," Luigs said. "If we do our job, know our assignments, then we don't care who gets the credit. That's our mindset."


DEFENSIVE LINE: An 'F' For Fabulous

Talk about your reversals of fortune.

After one game, the Arkansas defensive line was headed for a repeat of this course. Since then, they've moved to the head of the class.

After allowing 472 total yards and three rushing touchdowns in the season opener against No. 3 Southern California, defensive tackle Keith Jackson Jr. and defensive ends Jamaal Anderson and Antwain Robinson have improved every week.

"The thing is, they come out here and work, and that's the most important thing," Arkansas defensive line coach Tracy Rocker said. "They keep working to get better, and they never get complacent or satisfied.

"That's what is important for us as a unit and that's what we're trying to keep going."

While there was an issue with poor tackling earlier in the season, the front line has mostly done its part wrapping up.

Against Auburn, the defensive line sacked Tigers quarterback Brandon Cox six times while helping to hold Auburn's vaunted running game to only 60 yards.

The defensive line again dominated Saturday against Southeast Missouri State, but most impressive might be the way certain backups have improved in the past few games.

With injuries to Robinson (hip flexor) and defensive tackle Marcus Harrison, players like Cord Gray, Ernest Mitchell and Anthony Brown have been forced into action. There has been hardly any letdown in play from this group.

"Right now, we've got some depth," Rocker said. "But we've got depth because certain guys have decided to step up and do the work."

Statistically this bunch has rebounded from the USD debacle and the results have been noticed. Anderson (33 tackles, 4.5 sacks) and Jackson (40 tackles, 1.5 sacks and one interception) were named the SEC's defensive linemen of the week over the last two weeks.


LINEBACKERS: Injuries Have Wiped Away Depth

There has been a revolving door at linebacker this season.

Lack of depth specifically related to injuries has turned what was listed as a team strength heading into the season into a question mark each week. But somehow, the Hogs have survived with solid linebacker play.

The biggest casualty this season was promising sophomore Freddie Fairchild, who was lost for the season when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament against Utah State in the second game.

Already thin, the linebacking corps has had four different starting units. But one constant has been senior All-America candidate Sam Olajubutu.

At times, Olajubutu has been forced to play almost every snap because of the lack of depth at the position. He leads the Razorbacks in tackles -- with an unofficial 69 stops -- and he ranks seventh in the Southeastern Conference with officially 46 tackles, 29 of them solo.

"He's definitely a team leader," starting mike linebacker Weston Dacus said. "Everyone looks up to him. He's been a role model for me since I've been here. I'm sure he's been that way to a lot of players."

Dacus has 25 total tackles as does junior Matt Hewitt, who was moved from free safety to take over Fairchild's starting position at sam (strongside) linebacker.

Meanwhile, senior Desmond Sims -- who started the season opener -- has totaled 23 tackles.

"We're still kind of thin right now," Sims said. "We've had a few people go down. I mean, we still have a good group of guys. We just come out here and work hard every day, and we just try and do our best."


THE SECONDARY: Some Ups, Some Downs

Arkansas' cornerbacks and safeties have been a mixed bag this season.

Junior cornerback Chris Houston is often able to take half the field away from opposing quarterbacks. That's why he's an All-America candidate who may be tempted to look toward the NFL after this season.

Matterral Richardson has also become a solid cornerback, when he's kept his composure and avoided 15-yard penalties. Jamar Love has surprised the coaches by how quickly he has come on to contribute.

But reserve cornerbacks Darius Vinnett, Jerell Norton, John Johnson and Shedrick Johnson have all battled injuries, leaving the Hogs thin enough at the position that safety Michael Grant has had to practice some at cornerback.

The starting safeties -- Grant and senior Randy Kelly -- have given up some long plays, but Kelly had a 39-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Alabama.

Backup safeties Elston Forte and Kevin Woods have recorded the only two interceptions by Arkansas' secondary this season, both coming against Southeast Missouri State last week. Woods' theft was a sparkler, as he nabbed the ball while landing on the seat of his pants.

"It's been a team effort," Arkansas secondary coach Louis Campbell said. "We've gotten some coverage sacks, including a couple in the Auburn game, but our secondary has also benefited from the improvement by our defensive line and linebackers."

How the defensive backs perform against the versatile offenses of South Carolina, Tennessee and LSU will be a key to defining Arkansas' November.


SPECIAL TEAMS: Skinner Shines; Others Not So Much

Some parts of Arkansas' special teams impressed Arkansas coach Houston Nutt through six games. Others certainly gave him headaches.

Punter Jacob Skinner easily ranks in the former category.

His average of 40.6 yards per punt tops all other Southeastern Conference punters. He has pinned opponents inside their own 20-yard line 11 times in 25 punts.

Place-kicking woes, though, hurt Arkansas early on. Stephen Arnold missed his only field goal attempt -- a 38-yarder -- and an extra point in Arkansas' 20-0 victory over Utah State, forcing Nutt to replace him with fellow sophomore Jeremy Davis.

Davis has been successful, though his range hasn't been tested. Davis is perfect in three field-goal attempts, his longest a 34-yarder. He has converted 16 of 17 extra-point tries.

Arkansas' return game has been admittedly average.

Nutt said he put Peyton Hillis back on punt returns -- instead of other explosive, playmaking options like Reggie Fish, Damian Williams or Michael Smith -- because he wanted to avoid turnovers.

But Hillis got hurt and was replaced by Cedric Washington, who struggled to gain yards and muffed a punt Saturday against Southeast Missouri State. It's anyone's guess who will end up returning punts Saturday. Likely a combination of Fish, Williams and Smith will handle the duties.

"I can't see how we can wrong with any of us back there," Williams said.

The Razorbacks' kickoff return unit has also been average.

Felix Jones, a year after earning an All-American distinction as a returner, is averaging just 17.8 yards on eight returns. Smith broke off a 48-yarder against Southeast Missouri State and may see more time on kickoffs.

Both Arkansas coverage units are showing toughness and not giving up lengthy returns.

"We just need to get more consistent in every phase of special teams," Arkansas special teams coach James Shibest said.


COACHING: Nutt, Staff Producing Results

Before the season started, Arkansas coach Houston Nutt was considered to be on the hot seat and rumors circulated that there was friction among his assistants.

But the criticism has died down thanks to a five-game winning streak that has the Razorbacks ranked No. 15 nationally and the only team still undefeated in Southeastern Conference play.

During that span, Arkansas defensive coordinator Reggie Herring has been forced to shuffle his linebacker rotation, move Matt Hewitt from free safety to linebacker and rely on a number of backups on the defensive line.

The result: The Razorbacks have allowed only two teams to score more than 20 points in a game.

Meanwhile, Gus Malzahn has proven that he can be an effective college offensive coordinator. He has broken in freshman quarterback Mitch Mustain, added some wrinkles to the offense and based his system around running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones.

As a result, Arkansas has increased its scoring each week, from 14 points against Southern California to 63 against Southeast Missouri State.

"Our running game has been very good, and we need to keep improving the passing game," Malzahn said. "At times, we've been efficient."

And then there is Nutt.

Despite criticism from impatient fans, Nutt is doing one of his best coaching jobs in his ninth season at Arkansas. The Razorbacks have already won more games this season than they did a year ago, and they appear headed to a bowl game for the first time in three years.

At the same time, Nutt has made a conscious effort to not let his team get overly confident by the first-half success.

"Coach is telling us the right thing to do," Jones said, "And we believe in him."


OVERALL: Razorbacks Use Breaks To Breakout

Arkansas has a freshman starting quarterback, little depth at linebacker and an offensive coordinator who was coaching at Springdale High this time last year.

The Razorbacks also went three games without forcing a turnover and ranked last in the nation in time of possession entering the fourth game of the season.

At first glance, the first half of the season shouldn't have gone as smoothly as it did for the Razorbacks. They could easily be 3-3 if a pair of last-second kicks went differently.

But Arkansas coach Houston Nutt is finally getting the type of breaks that eluded him over the last two losing seasons.

Running back Darren McFadden returned from offseason toe surgery sooner than expected, and leads the Southeastern Conference in rushing.

Quarterback Mitch Mustain has struggled at times with making rookie mistakes, and yet he's the first UA true freshman to begin his career 5-0 as a starter.

Meanwhile, the offensive line has played better than expected, the defensive line has dominated despite being hit by injuries and the team finally has a kicker it can trust.

All together, it has made for one of the best stories in college football through the first half of the season.

"This team has been very mature, very unselfish," Nutt said. "... The seniors have just really stepped up and really kept this thing together. It's just been good concentration."

And a few lucky breaks.

Arkansas has won two games this season by a combined three points. This comes after the team lost six games by four points or less over the last two seasons.

But the 2006 season is only halfway done, and there is always a possibility that things could change.

Arkansas' coaches have stressed to the players the importance of not letting the 5-1 start, the No. 15 national ranking or the national attention that comes with being on ESPN and in Sports Illustrated go to their heads.

At the same time, Arkansas must get more consistency from Mustain and continue its search for a second wide receiver to compliment junior Marcus Monk. The offense, despite clicking recently, is still a work in progress.

"For the most part, we have gotten better. We're not satisfied," Malzahn said. "We've got to continue to get better. The good teams continue to get better, and that's what I've been harping on our guys. Don't be satisfied with what you've done."

Still, a 5-1 record and leading the SEC West at the halfway point are satisfactory marks to say the least.


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