The media got news before and after Wednesday's practice, the first for Arkansas in three days as football drills for the Jan. 1 Capital One Bowl against Wisconsin intensified.
Head coach Houston Nutt met with the media before the practice, just after a lenthy team meeting he hoped would clear the air. Nutt said the news was positive despite learning that starting freshman wide receiver Damian Williams had left the team.
Williams asked for his release and Nutt said it was granted. He said he wished Williams well, then added, "But we only want the players here who want to be Razorbacks."
Nutt said that he had met with both Mitch Mustain and Ben Cleveland to clear the air and both of the former Springdale stars said they were excited to remain Hogs. Williams was a teammate with Mustain and Cleveland at Springdale.
Nutt said he accepted an apology from Mustain after meeting with the freshman quarterback several times in the past week. Mustain was critical of Nutt in a recently released book about Springdale High School's 2005 season and the recruitment of the team's star players. Nutt said Cleveland also apologized.
Mustain said after practice that "as a Christian, I had to say some things and I owed Coach Nutt an apology. We've talked several times in the last few days. It was also my job to clear the air and ask for forgiveness."
Mustain said he also had to apologize to his teammates for his comments in the book and he's done that. He said his apology was accepted and he has been encouraged by many of his teammates.
"I talked to our team before practice tonight and wanted to cover some things," Nutt said. "The message I gave them, are you a Razorback or aren't you? I told them that it's always about team and not about being an individual. The ones who give to the team are the ones who are going to be successful.
"Too much is going to go into recruiting the next few days. We had a good meeting. Mitch and Ben want to be here. They both apologized to me and the team. We put everything aside and we are moving forward. Damian couldn't accept that and he's been granted his release."
Nutt took questions while the team stretched, then joined his squad inside Walker Pavilion for a workout that shifted into bowl preparations for the first time since the squad broke for semester tests after Saturday.
"We had some team segments and we also had some segments on Wisconisn," Nutt said. "Guys, we had one of our best practices of the season. I think our players were happy that finals are over. They can eat and sleep football and enjoy each other.
"It was a better practice than even I anticipated. We got closer today, guys. Sometimes it takes something happening to do that for a team. We've got some seniors who are very happy."
Others went further than Nutt in their description of the workout. They said it was the team's best of the year. Mustain said, "If we'd been playing a game against anyone, we would have won tonight."
Nutt and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said both Mustain and Casey Dick "were very good tonight." Malzahn said, "Both quarterbacks raised their level of play." Nutt said the QB snaps were split "50-50 between Dick and Mustain."
Ben Cleveland said teammates have been "real good" to him today despite some comments from his dad that appeared in the paper this morning.
"We all apologized to coach, and to our teammates," Cleveland said. "My dad said some things in the paper. Everyone has feelings and he expressed them. We have moved past them. My teammates have been real good, first class. We are brothers and we have moved forward."
Nutt said he "heard about the comments" before he met with his player.
"Ben and I had a good heart-to-heart visit about 30 minutes ago and we are moving forward," Nutt said. "Anybody can quit. He wants to be here and we talked about what his role can be here."
Peyton Hillis practiced for about the first 30 minutes, but is still not full speed. The fullback has been out for the better part of a month with a thigh bruise. Nutt said, "Peyton was out there for the first six periods or so, most of the individual work. He is still stiff, but I feel good about him possibly playing after seeing him tonight. It gives you hope that he's going to make it back (for the bowl)."
Nutt said Darren McFadden and Felix Jones took it easy in practice, nursing minor injuries.
"They are still a little gimpy," Nutt said. "But Stephen Parker looked pretty good. We have a few people with some minor things, but mostly everyone looked good tonight."
Nutt added, "We just had a really good practice. We had a good bounce to our step tonight. I think everyone knows we are getting to do something -- practice for a bowl -- we haven't done the past two seasons. They were glad and excited to be out here."
Nutt said the quarterbacks split reps 50-50 during some "live team periods without tackling" and both Dick and Mustain were impressive.
"We want to see how they perform the next couple of weeks," Nutt said, but declined to say if the position was up for grabs.
Asked if Dick was still the starter, Nutt said, "You have had some nice stories today. Leave that one alone for a few days. Let them compete and let's check things out."
Mustain didn't know what was going to happen in the next two weeks as far as playing time in the bowl, but said, "I'm happy to be out here and I was happy with the way things went this year for the team. I'm more than happy to give it a shot right now. I'm getting a chance in practice and I'm going to try to take advantage of it."
Nutt said that Mustain seems relieved that the "Year of the Dog" book is out in the open and is practicing better.
"It's easy to see that for the two weeks leading up to the South Carolina game what was bothering Mitch," Nutt said. "There was a lot on him. That book worried him and it affected him. It's understandable."
Mustain said he is practicing better of late. He said it's a mental thing, not physical.
"I don't think I'm doing anything different," he said. "But it is better. Mentally, I'm different now. I'm back to my old self, doing the things that I have to do to practice and play well.
Was the worry over the release of the book to blame?
"Who knows," Mustain said. "It may have been."
Has the team moved past the book issue?
"I think we have," Mustain said. "We've had good practices. That's my hope, anyway."
Mustain doesn't know if he'll play in the bowl, but he said, "I'm just going to keep working and taking the reps I'm getting. I think I did pretty good tonight. I'm ready to go. It's been awhile since I've had a chance to play."
Asked about his visits with the head coach, he said, "They've been good, several one-on-ones. I've talked to him several times. I don't know how many times, but several and they've all been good."
Malzahn said he "feels responsible" for the book and explained the circumstances for how a reporter was granted unlimited access to the Springdale team.
"When permission was asked, it was to be about a season, and we knew that we might have a chance to be the number one high school team in the nation," he said. "When the reporter was granted access, it was to be about the season, then somewhere down the line it turned into a recruiting book and it hurt some people.
"I feel responsible and it's unfortunate. It paints a cloud."
Malzahn said he has not read the book.
"Some people close to me have and I know about some of the things in it," he said. "There were a lot of great memories from that season. It's ashame some of it has turned into something negative."
Interestingly, Malzahn thinks the negatives could produce a positive.
"Obstacles sometimes have a tendency to bring people closer together," he said. "We've addressed certain things and put them behind us. The thing you have to remember is that there has been so much good happen with this team this year."
One of the negatives has been problems in the passing game in the two losses to end the season.
"That's one thing we need to improve and we are working hard to do that," Malzahn said. "That's what we are focused on right now. We need to be able to throw it when people know we are going to throw it. Maybe the next time we are in a late-game situation and we need to throw, we can do it a little better."
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