State of the Hogs: Pettway emerges as threat at receiver

By: Clay Henry
Published: Saturday, April 7, 2018
Arkansas receiver La'Michael Pettway watches a pass in front of defensive back Nate Dalton during the Razorbacks' spring game Saturday, April 7, 2018, in Little Rock.
( Ben Goff)
Arkansas receiver La'Michael Pettway watches a pass in front of defensive back Nate Dalton during the Razorbacks' spring game Saturday, April 7, 2018, in Little Rock.

— Chad Morris asked for playmakers to step up at wide receiver in the meeting with players before the Red-White Game on Saturday.

La'Michael Pettway was listening. The 6-2, 224-pound wide receiver led everyone with six catches for 91 yards on a day that started with sleet and ended with some patches of blue skies at War Memorial Stadium.

That inconsistent weather mirrored what's been an up-and-down six weeks for the wideouts as Morris has installed his offense in his first spring as Arkansas football coach. Pettway, from Nashville, has been mentioned by Morris before, including praise for his blocking. It's the consistency that's been missing.

It's notable that Pettway wasn't among the award winners brought to midfield during warmups to be handed certificates as the most consistent players – six on each side of the ball. Jonathan Nance was the lone receiver mentioned.

But no one looks as good as Pettway. It was the way he absorbed a blow on a 34-yard completion on the sideline from quarterback Cole Kelley. Safety Micahh Smith came racing over the top of the play to blast Pettway, but he held the ball while tumbling out of bounds.

“Pettway definitely shined at times today,” Morris said. “I said it in pregame, I want to find guys who make plays at wide receiver. Each day this spring it's been a different guy.”

It was a day that might have been set up for freshman wide receiver Michael Woods, a midterm arrival. He was open most of the day but could not take advantage of his many targeted throws. He ended up with two catches for 21 yards. He's been one of the stars of the spring overall, but didn't handle the moment in the spring game.

That's probably the kind of stuff Morris was talking about. The head coach is looking for separation, but that isn't obvious from the wideouts.

It may not be obvious at quarterback, either. Ty Storey opened with the first team with Kelley getting the same reps in what has been a consistent rotation. Ironically, they both totaled 126 yards passing. Each had one touchdown pass, both times to tight end Cheyenne O'Grady.

Someone asked Kelley afterward if he sensed that he'd caught Storey, although there's nothing I've seen this spring that suggests a front runner. It should be noted that Storey was one of the award winners on offense for consistency, not Kelley.

“What I see is that we are pushing each other,” Kelley said. “Ty did some really good things today. I know I had some good plays, but I missed some throws, too. I know there was a time that I was looking for a vertical and the flat was open. I've got to take that in our offense.”

That's probably what Morris was talking about when he covered the quarterbacks in the postgame media briefing.

“I know that's what everyone wants to talk about, the quarterbacks,” Morris said. “I want them to just operate within the system. The system has answers. Just be present, compete. Sometimes they want it to be everything and that's not what we need.”

It doesn't look like there is an answer just yet. My gut feeling from watching is that this is a lot like the team that went 4-8 last year, minus the best quarterback, Austin Allen.

The offensive line is missing it's best player from 2017, too. Frank Ragnow, the nation's best center, is being replaced by two players who arrived without scholarships, Dylan Hays and Ty Clary. But it may be that they have an easier job in the Morris offense, if the quarterbacks operate smoothly.

I don't take too much from what was presented from the Red-White look. It was designed to be “vanilla and generic.” Morris confirmed afterward that it was “very much” just that.

Missing was the heart of the offense, the heavy diet of run-pass offense now just referred to as “RPO.” I did think it was notable that left guard Hjalte Froholdt was called for being down field on the one pass play that looked a little like RPO.

Defensively, there were some obvious highlights. Cornerback Ryan Pulley, injured for all but one quarter last year, may be the team's best player. He was flagged for pass interference on one deep throw.

Pulley was pulled by defensive coach John Chavis for that penalty, but he was mostly the lock-down corner that was missed last year. He batted away three passes and was hardly targeted by either of the first-team quarterbacks.

There had been some verbal taunts by Nance earlier in the week, promising wide receivers were going over the top against Pulley. Nance called his group “the bomb squad.” Pulley said he saw tweets and stories after that interview.

“No deep balls, right?” Pulley said when that was brought up. “I knew all about that, but I stayed away from it. I wasn't saying nothing.

“What I'll say is that our concept is we don't allow balls over our heads. We didn't today. Pettway got one good play down the sideline and he held on; great play. He's a beast. He's got that huge body and he held it. That was a huge play.

“But we got a lot of PBUs. What was it, nine? That's a good day. We had a good day on defense."

Pulley didn't agree with the penalty on him.

“Now the pass interference, I didn't think it was," Pulley said. "But coach snatched me out. I got a talking to by about every coach on our sideline. I understand, I can't do that. I can't reach out and grab. No hands. So I get it.

“But it was real fun today. We knew it was going to rain, snow and sleet. We knew the weather. We saw it all week and it was all good. We just knew to go play.

“I think this has been a real great spring. We are faster. We are learning the offense and learning the defense. I think the team is playing faster and we are faster.”

Morris said the tempo of the game was good in stretches, although the system wasn't working at the outset. He said the plays weren't getting in fast enough or snapped fast enough.

Kelley said it's just a matter of getting better every day.

“We are still learning,” Kelley said. “We went vanilla, like coach said. But that's what we need to learn now, the base. Our base stuff will be what we run a lot and we still are getting that down. It's going to keep getting better.

“I think we had some guys ball, like Pettway. He's god-gifted and you can see that. And you saw we have some guys like that on defense, too.”

That was a reference to defensive ends Randy Ramsey and Jamario Bell. Both made plays in the pass rush. Ramsey is one of the award winners for consistency. Bell is not.

“Bell is one of those older guys who has ability,” Morris said. “He does show up some. I mentioned that earlier this spring. He did today, but he's got to be more consistent.

“Ramsey has been there all spring. He's a natural fit and is only going to get better. He's special. I did think the entire defensive line brought pressure.”

If there has been a big surge this spring, it might be the rise of walk-on D'Vone McClure (6-2, 222) in the secondary. With Derrick Munson out with an ankle sprain, McClure was the starter at nickel back with the first team to open the game.

“He's an older guy, a former pro baseball player,” Morris said. “He's been a pleasant surprise. When he first approached me about coming out for the team, I really didn't know much about him. He said he'd be willing to play offense, defense or special teams. I told him, 'Yes, I want you on defense.' He's had a really good spring.”

There are some things that are easy to define about a “really good spring.” It was the look on the faces of trainer Matt Summers and team doctors as they marched off the field Saturday. They weren't headed to treat much of any injuries. They were all smiles.

“That's the biggest thing about today,” Morris said. “I don't think we had much of anything today. Nothing really.”

There were plenty of collisions. The biggest was on Pettway's long catch. The result was the kind that everyone likes, especially the quarterbacks.

“I sure did,” Kelley said. “I'm telling you, it was a vertical with a single high safety. I thought I looked (the safety) away, but here he came. Pettway held it. I loved it.”

With a spring that was all about building from almost scratch, it was something to build on as the Hogs sail for the next strength and conditioning phase. They've got at least one wide receiver who looks like he's big enough and bad enough to make plays in the SEC.

Now it's about getting the consistency right.

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