State of the Hogs: Passing

Just two days into spring drills, here are some thoughts on the passing game from HI.com publisher Clay Henry.

After a year of waiting behind closed doors for practice to end, things were open for the first two days of spring football drills at Arkansas this week. It was like a frosty treat on a hot day.

Of course, it wasn't for everyone. You had to get out of bed around 4:30 a.m. to be on hand for the first snap Wednesday at Walker Pavilion. I took advantage of the open door to watch every snap of both days. I was anxious to see what new offensive coordinator David Lee was bringing to the table.

Let me add this disclaimer. The message should be clear that this writer does not expect the Hogs to become pass happy over night. And, don't take it that I'm convinced the worries of the passing game have been put to rest.

It's kind of like when Reggie Herring came aboard as defensive coordinator two years ago, he told us that the defense would get better, but that it would take time. Lee sounds a lot the same as he discusses the day-to-day progress of the passing game and the ability to protect the quarterback without keeping both backs and the tight end tight in as blockers.

However, I am convinced that the Hogs are finally taking the correct steps to become more effective in the passing game. Lee is making progress and seems to be on the right path.

Lee was made available to the media only after Tuesday's workout, the first day of spring drills. It was Herring's turn on Wednesday, but I did sneak a question as Lee was exiting Wednesday to find out if he was as encouraged after day two as he was after the first workout.

"Progress, we are making progress," Lee answered after day two. "We are getting better."

I'm no coach and I don't always know exactly what I see when I sit on the sidelines at a spring workout. But I know when I like something and when an outfit looks coached. I agree with Lee. I felt that way after Tuesday's workout and I'll give Lee credit for his work with junior quarterback Casey Dick after what I saw Wednesday.

Dick, the only scholarship QB on campus right now, reminded me of Clint Stoerner early in spring practice ahead of his junior year. That's when I saw Stoerner make big jumps as an SEC quarterback in the throwing game. Before that, I just thought Stoerner was a man with quick feet and a strong arm. I hadn't thought of Stoerner as being accurate until I saw him about two or three days deep into spring drills before his junior year.

Dick wasn't sharp on Tuesday in the Hogs' first spring workout. He opened the practice on target, but his passes began to sail later. He made some of those high, wild throws that day that reminded me of the way he finished the season last year against Mississippi State and LSU.

Lee is highly skilled in his ability to evaluate passing mechanics and get them fixed. He made note of Dick's throwing flaws after Tuesday's workout and said, "The ball was coming out of his hand early, something we've seen before."

That didn't happen Wednesday. His throws were strong, accurate and consistent. It was Stoerner-like from start to finish.

And, he wasn't holding the ball. It was delivered early. Head coach Houston Nutt said Lee had gotten through to Dick.

"He's made him realize that you need to be getting rid of it after you get to one Mississippi, two Mississippi," Nutt said. "He's got him thinking with that clock in his head. The ball is coming out of there, zip, and on target. Casey was outstanding today."

Outstanding is the right word for Peyton Hillis, too. The big, fluid man with the soft hands was never lined up at fullback. He was in the slot on every play I saw. He was hitting seams down the field and to the sideline and Dick was hitting him in the numbers. He was finding Felix Jones, Darren McFadden and Michael Smith with accurate bullets in the short game, too. In short, it was exactly as Lee advertised when he visited with the media two weeks ago about the kind of passing game he wanted to bring to the Arkansas offense.

I'm more comfortable after seeing these first two days. I know there are plenty who won't believe it until they see it with their own eyes. That's fair. You don't have to take my word for it. Wait and see is the right approach.

And, it's just two days and they have yet to put on the pads. What they do in live scrimmage situation will provide a better read. What they do against Kentucky and Alabama early next fall will give all a better test. Of course, we will know more after seeing an adequate passing game against LSU.

In my mind, there's a chance it's going to happen. I like all the components right now. Dick is more confident, better equipped and possibly better trained to handle it all now. He's got better wideouts. Even the one suitable pass catcher, Marcus Monk, is better. Monk is lighter and quicker than at any time during the past two seasons. He's something special right now. And, he may finally have some help.

I liked what I saw of London Crawford, Marques Wade, Carlton Salters and Andrew Norman from last year's freshman class. I think converted quarterback Robert Johnson is going to be a big factor at wideout this year, too. He's lost 12-14 pounds and is a quick, svelte 207 right now.

Rod Coleman and Chris Baker seem to be fitting in, too. I liked the demonstrative way Alex Woods, the new wideout coach, worked the wideouts in the two practices to date. He's coached wideouts at the NFL level. Perhaps his approach will work with this group.

We'll know more as we watch workouts when they resume after spring break on March 26. Will the wideouts come back to campus in shape and able to handle the heavy amount of route running it takes to implement a pro passing scheme? Will Casey Dick's mechanics be intact and stay that way for 13 more workouts?

I don't know, but it's fun to watch it unfold. I'm looking forward to some more frosty treats.

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