Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and its All-America Committee, voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
Woods steps into role as Razorbacks' top receiver
Arkansas receiver Mike Woods runs after catching a pass during a game against Vanderbilt on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE Mike Woods thought he’d be playing catch with Ben Hicks as a true freshman when he picked his college late in the junior year as a high-schooler at Magnolia, Texas.
The Houston area wide receiver didn’t know it would eventually be at a school a few hundred miles farther north.
Hicks is now the quarterback at Arkansas, after both followed Chad Morris, Joe Craddock and Justin Stepp from SMU to Arkansas.
Morris is the head coach who committed both Hicks and Woods to Arkansas. Craddock coaches the quarterbacks and is offensive coordinator. Stepp is the wide receiver coach. All had the same titles at SMU.
Woods gushes when he talks about what the arrival of Hicks means to the Arkansas offense. The graduate transfer from SMU is like an extra coach for those still trying to learn the nuances of the Morris offense. Woods also had praise for the holdover quarterbacks and the highly anticipated arrival of Texas A&M transfer Nick Starkel.
“But Ben was the guy who helped show me around when I took my visit to SMU,” Woods said. “So, yes, I thought I’d be playing with him.
“So when he got here, we already had a chemistry. The rest of our guys didn’t take long to get to the same spot. He’s our on-field leader, and he’s pretty much been like that from his first day here.
“I’m going to be around him as much as I can. He’s in the offices watching tape almost all the time, and I want to be right there beside him.
“You watch tape with your quarterback, then you understand how to make the adjustments on the field.”
Woods is the clear leader among the wide receivers group, just as Hicks has stepped into that role with the quarterbacks.
Hicks senses that Woods understands what’s taking place at Arkansas. Some things had to be worked out, just as they had to work out at SMU when Morris first arrived.
“Mike knows what we went through at SMU, and he also understands that this system works,” Hicks said. “He and I have the history so that we both know it.
“What he needs to know — and what I keep telling him — is that we are counting on Mike to lead that room of receivers. He’s young, but those guys look at him as a good player.”
Hicks will continue to pound that sense of leadership into Woods.
“I am,” he said. “Part of my job in coming here is to help him understand that role. Here is what I tell him: If he is the leader in that room, we’ve got a shot.”
Part of that development was lost in the spring when Woods missed the last two weeks with a broken hand that required surgery. The rehab didn’t finish until the week of finals.
“I think I got hurt the first two weeks before spring break,” Woods said. “It’s 100 percent healed now. I am cleared to catch again.”
Hicks is excited about summer workouts, knowing Woods is full go.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do, me and all of the receivers,” Hicks said. “We have to build that trust, where all of us know where the other is all of the time.”
Woods knows that’s important.
“If I’m in the right spot, Ben is going to deliver the ball,” Woods said. “He can fit it in the tight space. He is going to put it in the right spot, and it’s our job to be there. Having him here gives us a chance.”
Woods doesn’t think he always needs it to be perfectly thrown. He fancies himself as a deep threat first.
“That’s my game, the deep ball,” Woods said. “I’ve always been that deep threat, my entire career. Give me a 50-50 ball, I’ll go get it. Just throw it up. That’s what I tell Ben. I’m going to come down with most of them.”
That’s not all there is to the Morris offense. Woods is still trying to add strength so he can get open against press coverage, the every play style in the SEC. And, that will help with blocking.
“I’m trying to get bigger,” he said. “But you can get too big. I came in this fall too big. I was at 202. I played this spring at 190.”
The idea was to add strength but drop body fat.
“I’ve changed my diet,” Woods said. “I’m a big carbs guy, and I had to cut out some things. I love noodles, and what I’ve tried to do is eat more chicken and rice.”
The idea is to stay lean and fast for all of the running in an up-tempo offense.
“We do play fast, and with three receivers on the field, we need to sub a lot,” he said. “I want to be in perfect condition so that I can stay on the field. I’m trying to learn all the positions, all three. That will get me more snaps, too.”
Some of the subs will be youngsters. If there is one position where youth will be served at Arkansas, it might be wide receiver. Just as Woods played as a true freshman last season, Trey Knox and perhaps other freshmen will be in the rotation in the fall.
“Knox is going to be great,” Woods said. “He’s got a great work ethic. I come by the office at night, and I see Knox up here, too, almost every time. We come by ourselves some. He’s a great dude, someone I really get along with.”
The common denominator is that both fell in love with Stepp in the recruiting process.
“Coach Stepp, that’s one funny dude,” Woods said. “The only thing I don’t get is that he’s a (Golden State) Warriors fan. I’m (Houston) Rockets. That’s our discussion.”
Stepp was the lead recruiter when Woods committed to SMU, then followed when the staff switched to Arkansas.
“Yes, he recruited me, but it was just as much of a staff thing,” Woods said. “That’s their secret, the whole staff recruits you. They give you the sense of family.
“I can remember when I got my offer to SMU. I think it might have been my third, but pretty early. I got a call from Coach Stepp, then, one by one every coach on the staff got on the phone to tell me about the offer.
“I never got that one other time from another staff. It was one coach calling me. But with this staff, it’s the entire group.
“It makes a difference. You get the feeling that they really want you. I don’t want to go to a place where I want them. I wanted them to want me, and no one did like Coach Morris and his staff.”
Woods likes the way the team has fallen into the culture established by Morris.
“I thought it was good when we came back in January and we had to earn our gear, the logo stuff with Razorbacks,” he said. “We didn’t play well enough last fall. We didn’t deserve it after 2-10. We had all of this new gear coming in, but we didn’t get it until we worked for it. I was fine with that.”
And he understood when there were many days when the offense didn’t win the championship belt in a battle with the defense. There were some days that the offense produced lots of big plays but didn’t win the belt.
“We would lose it based on turnovers,” he said. “That’s fair. You have two or three turnovers in a game, you are not going to win. You lose. Simple as that. Our goals start with eliminating turnovers. You win the turnover margin, you will win a lot of games.”
Woods sees big changes coming, especially with the improvement at cornerback. If anyone knows how the Arkansas corners are playing, it’s the wide receivers.
“I really like Buster (Montaric Brown) and Jacques (McClellion) at corner,” Woods said. “Buster really got with it this spring. I saw the way he worked. There were some days that we didn’t practice, and he’d be out there. I met him, and we worked by ourselves a lot of days.
“What I see from Buster, his confidence has shot threw the roof. It’s helped our wide receivers. Iron sharpens iron.”
It’s the strength level that has improved Brown.
“Yes, it has,” Woods said. “And that’s given him that little edge. It’s exciting.”
Then, just for emphasis, Woods dropped one of his favorite lines.
“We are going to be a lot better,” he said. “Yes, we are. Get the popcorn ready. It’s going to be an exciting year.”
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