Just moments after surprising his team with a meet me in Orlando speech instead of a time for an afternoon practice, University of Arkansas head football coach Houston Nutt had a surprise for the media as well.
Instead of waiting for his Razorbacks (10-3) to reassemble Christmas Night in Orlando for the Jan. 1 Capital One Bowl against Wisconsin (11-1) and name a starting quarterback as he had previously announced, Nutt and his staff made the call on Wednesday.
It will be sophomore Casey Dick taking the initial snap for Arkansas, but freshman Mitch Mustain will be trotted in soon afterwards.
"After studying it and watching them compete – and both of them had great attitudes, both of them worked hard and both of them deserve to play –we will start out with Casey. He'll take the first two series and Mitch will come in the third series. Then we will play it from there."
Nutt says he, quarterbacks coach Alex Wood and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn got to see a good enough body of evidence in the on-campus workouts to make a call before the team broke for Christmas.
"I had every intention of waiting until we get down there, but nothing is probably going to change that after the first practice," Nutt said. "So Coach Malzahn, Coach Wood and I have seen what we needed to see.
"With the way they have both been throwing the ball, they way they have been competing and the attitudes they've had, they both deserve to play," Nutt added.
As for who will get the majority of the snaps in the game, Nutt said that depended solely on how each one plays early on.
"We'll see what happens, where we are, who is moving the team." Nutt said.
Dick, who has started the past four games and played all but 6 of the true quarterback snaps in the last five contests, was happy to be named the starter and knows it was a close call.
"It is something that you get to go home and have off your chest," Dick said. "You can just go in there (home) and relax and know you are going to be the starter. It will be a good decision that for everybody and the team."
Mustain, who started seven games this season, was also happy to hear that he was going to be for sure playing in the bowl game.
" It just gives me a chance to play and that is what I have been looking for so hopefully I do all right," Mustain said.
He says that knowing he is going to play actually takes pressure off instead of putting it on him.
"If anything I think it takes it off because I know what to expect when I am going in and I don't have to be sitting around wondering for the whole time," Mustain said. "I think it is a good thing."
Nutt said Mustain has been much better in workouts since bowl practices started, no doubt in part to the fact the air was cleared between the coach and the player after some turmoil because of comments made in a book.
"It is totally, totally different these last nine practices than it was from the South Carolina week on – totally different with Mitch," Nutt said. "You can just tell with the way he is throwing, the way he is thinking. Whatever burdens he had, whatever it was, whatever worries and concerns or pressing , he is much, much different. It's like he was during two-a-days during camp. Like he was during the Vanderbilt game, the Auburn game.
"I think now that all that stuff is out in the open and is in the clear, it is off of him," Nutt said.
Mustain agrees with that assessment.
"It's been a combination of everything," Mustain said. "Everything is out of the way. We have kind of got the season over with, we are going in and know it is our last game and we know what we have to do."
No matter the quarterback, it's clear that Arkansas has to be more effective in its passing game than it was down the stretch.
"We both came out here and we had a good week-and-a-half worth of practice and we made some strides in the passing game," Dick said.
"…We are great competitors," Dick said of the two quarterbacks. "We appreciate each other, we learn from each other so it is just going to add some different things to the offense."
O o o
It was a matter of getting enough done, impending rain and wanting his team to get to its homes safely that had the UA staff ending on-campus preparations for the bowl after its Wednesday morning workout.
"We have had an excellent nine practices and even more than that if you look at all the plays we got the young guys with scrimmages," Nutt said, "so we are turning them loose a little bit early."
It was especially beneficial for the youngsters on the football team, particularly the offensive linemen and linebackers.
"It was unbelievable fundamental time for our young guys – Jim Hart, DeMarcus Love, Ray Dominquez, Joey Crossland, Mike Aguirre, all those guys, it was just outstanding," Nutt said. "…They got all the middle drills they wanted. This really helped. This is what we have been missing. Lot of reps, lot or reps, lot of scrimmage time."
"You could tell our linebackers got better," Nutt added "Lou Holtz use to always say after the season- between now and the bowl game – they have gotten older and better. That's what you see with Wendel Davis, Adrian Davis, Jarell Norton, those young guys."
There were several players who sit out the practice on Wednesday that will be expected to go through practice on Tuesday in Orlando.
That included guys like Darren McFadden, Tony Ugoh, Antwain Robinson, Peyton Hillis and several more like Weston Dacus, who is fighting a flu bug.
"We are so bumped and bruised right now," Nutt said. "We hit them pretty good. We got want we needed to get done and we still have six practices down there."
Mustain believes that Arkansas has had its best practices of the season since the regular season has been over.
"I seriously think we have had our best week-and-half to two weeks that we've had since we started this year," Mustain said. "We looked solid. We had real tough practices, but I think we have stayed focus which is a good thing and we really got a lot done."
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