Noland familiar with pulling double duty

By: Harry King
Published: Wednesday, January 16, 2019
Arkansas quarterback Connor Noland laughs while talking with fellow freshman quarterback John Stephen Jones during a game against Ole Miss on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018, in Little Rock.
Photo by Ben Goff
Arkansas quarterback Connor Noland laughs while talking with fellow freshman quarterback John Stephen Jones during a game against Ole Miss on Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018, in Little Rock.

LITTLE ROCK — Reduced to three-letter acronyms, Connor Noland’s competition in two sports this spring involves RPO, SMU and ERA.

Those TLAs refer to his skill in the run-pass option vs. the proficiency of Southern Methodist University graduate transfer Ben Hicks, and Noland’s earned run average will factor into whether he is one of the pitchers on the 27-man SEC roster for the nationally-ranked Razorbacks.

If he does travel with baseball, Noland will be busy. Beginning March 15, baseball has a three-game SEC series every weekend for two months, and some of those will overlap with the 15 football practices that usually include a couple of Saturday scrimmages, plus the Red-White game on April 6.

Ask Kyler Murray and Jameis Winston about doubling up in baseball and football.

On a Friday last April, Murray and his Oklahoma teammates rode the bus from Norman to Fort Worth where he batted cleanup and hit two home runs in a victory over TCU. He flew back to Norman to participate in a Saturday scrimmage, got back on the plane, and returned to Fort Worth where he participated in a doubleheader on Sunday.

On other occasions, he practiced football in the afternoon, arrived at baseball about 5:45 p.m., just in time to take batting practice and shag fly balls prior to a 6:30 p.m. first pitch.

“We kind of told him, ‘Hey, it’s not going to be easy but you’re the one who signed up for this,’” OU football coach Lincoln Riley said in a New York Times article.

A couple of years earlier, Winston started 32 baseball games as a freshman at Florida State and did so well at spring football practice that he earned the starting job at quarterback. The next spring, after winning the Heisman Trophy and leading the Seminoles to a football national championship, he missed only one football practice and that was to participate in a baseball series against nationally-ranked Clemson.

On another occasion, he played baseball against Georgia Tech in Atlanta on a Friday night, flew to Tallahassee the next morning for football, then flew back to Atlanta for Sunday baseball.

“I literally have no time on my hands now,” Winston told the media in March 2014.

Noland knows something about double dipping, working with renowned quarterback coach Dennis Gile in Phoenix and pitching for the Arkansas Sticks travel team during the summer. Once, he went through his routine with Gile, then threw five no-hit innings against the Houston Banditos that day during a tournament in Phoenix. On another occasion, he did the football thing, then flew back to Arkansas to take the mound.

For him, there was no down time between football and baseball at Arkansas. In fact, baseball coach Dave Van Horn texted Noland on the Saturday after Noland threw 17 passes in the season-ending loss to Missouri and asked how enjoyed playing in the storm in Columbia. “He said, ‘Coach, it’s funny you texted me because I’m driving by Baum Stadium right now, getting ready to call you,’” Van Horn said.

After a short trip home to Greenwood for Thanksgiving, Noland came in on the following Monday, met new pitching coach Matt Hobbs and played catch.

Van Horn watched and declared, “The arm is in shape.”

Already, Arkansas football coach Chad Morris and Van Horn have talked about how to work around conflicting practice schedules in two sports. The coaches also will make sure strength coaches are on the same page so Noland does not do too much on a day that he’s scheduled to throw at Baum.

“We’ve got to make sure they feel good about what’s going on down here and vice versa,” Van Horn told a media cohort who shared the quote. “We don’t want Connor in the middle feeling like, ‘They want me to do more physically there, and they don’t and they think that I’m slacking off or whatever.’ Believe me, with that kid, there’s no slacking off. That kid is going to do whatever you tell him … ”

“I think Connor is every mature, he’s a winner, and, man, I hope he can pitch,” Van Horn said. “If he does, he’s going to be on the mound.”

Also a pitcher, Barry Lunney Jr., 1992-95, was the last Arkansas quarterback to play baseball.

“It is better for those guys to be a pitcher than to be a position player,” said former Arkansas pitching coach Wes Johnson prior to being hired by the Minnesota Twins. “A lot of people think throwing that football is different from the other, but … we think it’s going to help him get ready (for baseball). We want him throwing the football.”

Pretty much by default, Hicks and Noland appear to be 1-2 in the quarterback competition.

Gone is Cole Kelley and on his way out the door is Ty Storey. Like all athletes, they want to start and they recognized that was unlikely.

Kelley, 2-2 as a starter in 2017 in place of injured Austin Allen, and 1-1 last year before losing his job to Storey, transferred to Southeastern Louisiana University. Storey’s decision to enter his name in the NCAA’s transfer portal was more of a surprise, but equally understandable. He started nine games last year, but was keenly aware of Morris’ pursuit of a graduate transfer.

Noland was ahead of fellow freshmen John Stephen Jones and Daulton Hyatt last year and it is doubtful that pecking order has changed. And KJ Jefferson, the highly touted dual-threat quarterback who signed with Arkansas in December, is still in high school in Sardis, Miss.

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