Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
UA wanting more out of its receivers
Arkansas receiver Keon Hatcher runs drills during practice Thursday, March 20, 2014 in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE - Only one of Arkansas’ top eight pass catchers last season - junior Keon Hatcher - is a returning wide receiver.
The Razorbacks suffered a major dip in production at wideout last season. The factors included losing 1,300-yard receiver Cobi Hamilton and 6-5 Mekale McKay from the year before, adapting to a new philosophy that put an emphasis on balancing the offense with a stronger running attack, and dealing with an injury to quarterback Brandon Allen’s throwing shoulder.
Arkansas’ projected top pass catchers at wideout in 2014 and their receiving totals last season:
PLAYER HT. WT. CLASS REC-YDS TDS
Keon Hatcher 6-2 210 Jr. 27-346 2
Demetrius Wilson* 6-3 186 Sr. 9-117 1
D’Arthur Cowan 6-3 186 Jr. 4-26 0
Eric Hawkins 6-0 180 So. 3-32 0
Drew Morgan 6-0 193 So. 0-0 0
Jared Cornelius 6-1 192 Fr. 0-0 0
Cody Hollister 6-4 205 So. 0-0 0
Kendrick Edwards 6-6 205 Fr. 0-0 0
JoJo Robinson 6-0 185 Fr. 0-0 0
This year the Razorbacks are intent on fielding a more threatening down field presence in the passing game, as well as a bigger variety of trustworthy hands to catch passes from Allen.
“We’re 20,000 times better than where we were last year at this point,” receivers coach Michael Smith said. “It’s because they’ve been in the system for a year.”
The Razorbacks actually return five of their top eight pass catchers, but two of them are tight ends Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle, and another pair are backfield mates Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins.
While Arkansas will continue to feed passes to its backs and tight ends, the wide receivers know they have to be greater contributors.
“I feel like this receiving corps can be great,” said Hatcher, a 6-2, 210-pound junior who had 27 receptions last year. “We’ve gotten a lot better, making sure we’re doing the things we’re supposed to be doing: Running the right route, blocking the right person.
“The coaches have been getting on to us about all the little things. And the little things turn into the big things, so by making those little things big to us, it’s become better and we’re moving along greatly.”
Coach Bret Bielema said last week that the greater degree of trust Allen has in the receivers making catches is incalculable.
“It’s night and day from where we were last year,” Allen said.
Smith was frustrated after Tuesday’s work with what he felt was an unacceptable number of drops, but offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said the team’s catch charts have reflected well on the unit.
“We do catch charts and we know every catch on every ball that’s thrown to everybody, and we call it catchable or not,” Chaney said. “So far everybody has been clicking around that 90 percent, and some are a little higher. We think you can assume a kid will drop one out of 10.”
Smith said Hatcher, sophomore Drew Morgan and freshman Jared Cornelius, an early enrollee, have rated at the top of the catching percentages, along with junior college transfer Cody Hollister.
“We’ve had a couple of guys catching 90 to 95 percent of the balls being thrown at them this camp,” Smith said.
There are factors that should play into Arkansas’ progress at receiver. Senior Demetrius Wilson, who missed all last season after tearing a knee ligament during fall camp, is making good plays in spring practices and will have a full year of rehabilitation by the time the season opens at Auburn on Aug. 30.
Two newcomers who should have an impact in the fall, Hollister and Cornelius, enrolled early and have made big strides through spring.
Junior D’Arthur Cowan has progressed well enough academically to earn his way off a no-practice suspension the first two weeks of spring, and sophomore Eric Hawkins is doing his best work yet this spring, Bielema said.
A pair of signees, 6-6 Kendrick Edwards and 6-foot JoJo Robinson, are expected to deliver a prime fade-route option and a dose of speed to the offense.
Chaney said Arkansas’ postseason critique indicated blocking on the edges must improve, so becoming more physical has been a point of emphasis as well.
“If you don’t block, you’re not getting on the field,” Hawkins said.
“I’ve been pleased with how they’re blocking,” Chaney said. “We understand the importance of playing physical and the technical side of blocking. We’ve gotten so much better.”
The proof of the receivers’ progressions will come in the fall, but the unit is full of confidence.
“We can be the best receiving corps in the nation,” Morgan said. “I feel like we have the potential to be that. It’s just we’ve got to step up to the plate and swing for that home run.”
Sports, Pages 17 on 04/24/2014