Commentary:

Afternoon full of pigskin and ponies

By: Harry King
Published: Friday, April 5, 2019
Arkansas quarterback Ben Hicks prepares to throw Friday, March 1, 2019, during practice at the university practice facility in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas quarterback Ben Hicks prepares to throw Friday, March 1, 2019, during practice at the university practice facility in Fayetteville.

LITTLE ROCK — Eager for a first-hand look at athletes likely to play prominent roles in the SEC in the fall, and the horses that could be at Churchill Downs in four weeks, watching the action from five venues during a 3 1/2-hour window on Saturday should be a great help.

The TV package includes spring football from Fayetteville and Oxford, Miss., and major Kentucky Derby prep races from New York, Kentucky and California.

In the spotlight are a quarterback who has never thrown a pass vs. SEC competition, a second who has attempted 10 in conference play, and a thoroughbred who is No. 1 or No. 2 on the Derby lists of most analysts even though he was second in his only race since November.

Namely, the question marks are Arkansas’ Ben Hicks, Ole Miss’ Matt Corral and Bob Baffert’s Game Winner. Clock management is a must for those hoping to view the whole show live.

Both the Razorbacks and the Rebels kick off at 3 p.m. - Arkansas on ESPNU and Ole Miss on SEC Network, and NBCSN’s two-hour program begins at 4:30 p.m.

For most Arkansas fans, watching Hicks - a graduate transfer from SMU - will be a first.

Pretty much by default, he is No. 1.Nick Starkel, the player most likely to challenge Hicks in the fall, won’t arrive on campus until after graduation from Texas A&M next month.

Meanwhile, the most experienced and talented returning quarterback, Connor Noland, is scheduled to pitch at Auburn on Friday and has participated in only five football practices this spring. He has not taken part in any scrimmage.

Based solely on Hicks’ numbers from his years at SMU under coach Chad Morris, he is a decent passer and not much of a runner. Familiarity with the offense may be his biggest plus and should result in an attack that is more uptempo, something that Morris promised, but a style that was rarely seen in 2018.

By the same token, a quote uttered by Starkel more than a month ago is interesting. After watching Arkansas practice, sitting in on a team meeting and reviewing the playbook, he said, “I don’t think it is going to be that difficult at all to pick up.”

The quarterback on the horizon is often the most popular, but in fairness to Hicks, those grading his production should note injuries in the offensive line and the availability of a limited number of experienced running backs.

Still, lots of No. 1 offense vs. No. 1 defense is promised and the plan is to watch football until the 11 runners in the Wood Memorial are loaded into the gate in New York for what is supposed to be a 5 p.m. start.

During breaks in the action from Fayetteville, check out Corral and the Rebels. The five-star from California, who reneged on Florida after the Gators and coach Jim McElwain parted ways in late October 2017, is supposedly a clear No. 1 to replace Jordan Ta’amu.

Ole Miss coach Matt Luke says Corral has made dramatic progress in one year. “When you’ve been in it longer, you’re communicating with your receivers and talking to the offense line,” Luke said. “He’s doing the little things it takes …”

Corral’s skill deserves extra attention from Arkansas fans because Ole Miss is one of the few SEC teams on the Razorbacks’ schedule that may not have a huge talent edge.

Citing a lack of depth, Luke will start his defense with a certain number of points and challenge the offense to catch up.

Once the racing begins, Arkansas’ own Randy Moss and Hall of Fame rider Jerry Bailey will provide insight. Although 11 winners of the Wood Memorial went on to capture the Kentucky Derby before 2000, no Wood winner has doubled up in the Derby since. And, the recent record of Blue Grass winners is even worse — none have traveled 80 miles to the West and won in Louisville since Strike the Gold 1991.

Despite that history, those involved with the 25 3-year-olds in the two races have high hopes.

The Blue Grass is scheduled at 5:23 p.m., about 50 minutes before the Santa Anita Derby, which was the springboard to Justify’s Triple Crown a year ago.

In each of the three Derby preps, a first or a second earns enough points to secure one of the 20 spots in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby on May 4, but the presence of Game Winner focuses the attention on California.

Unbeaten at 2, the colt finished 2018 with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but was second to Omaha Beach when he returned to the races March 16 at Oaklawn Park.

The Baffert factor — he has won the Derby five times, including last year — and a thoroughbred’s normal improvement in the second start of the year are among the reasons many experts have Game Winner No. 1 on their list of Derby favorites.

Meanwhile, Omaha Beach will make his fourth start of the year in the Arkansas Derby on April 13. Late that same afternoon, Razorback fans curious about other SEC opponents with new quarterbacks can check out the spring games at Auburn and Missouri.

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