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. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
QB Starkel's 'spark' sets up his start for Razorbacks
Arkansas quarterback Nick Starkel throws a pass during a game against Ole Miss on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Oxford, Miss.
FAYETTEVILLE -- The spark quarterback Nick Starkel provided the Arkansas Razorbacks in the second half of Saturday's 31-17 loss at Ole Miss parlayed into a starting assignment for the junior transfer.
Coach Chad Morris said in his Monday news conference that Starkel would get the nod Saturday over senior Ben Hicks, who started the first two games.
The Razorbacks (1-1) host Colorado State (1-1) on Saturday at 3 p.m. on the back end of a two-game series. The Rams rallied from a 27-9 deficit last year in Week 2 for a 34-27 victory in Fort Collins, Colo.
Starkel completed 17 of 24 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown in the second half Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Hicks completed 7 of 16 passes for 98 yards in the first half.
"It wasn't so much what Ben did or didn't do, it's what Nick did," Morris said. "We were looking for a spark, something to get our offense moving, to create some momentum, create some yards, give an opportunity for some big plays. That was our decision going into it, and Nick will be our starter."
Starkel is in line for his first start since the Belk Bowl on Dec. 29, 2017, when the redshirt freshman completed 42 of 63 passes for 499 yards with 4 touchdowns and 1 interception in Texas A&M's 55-52 loss to Wake Forest.
Starkel has completed 21 of 29 passes this season for 72.4%, a figure that would rank 20th in the country and sixth in the SEC if he had enough attempts to qualify. His efficiency rating of 149.02 would rank 48th in the country if he qualified.
"Nick came in and did some good things," University of Arkansas offensive coordinator Joe Craddock said. "We had to open it up a little more in the second half. We got down, and he was able to make some nice throws."
Starkel completed nine passes of 10 yards or longer, including a 45-yard strike to Mike Woods, a 26-yarder to Trey Knox and a 25-yard throw to Cheyenne "C.J." O'Grady. The play to Knox set up Starkel's 6-yard touchdown pass to Koilan Jackson for the Razorbacks' first scoring pass this season.
"You kind of saw Ole Miss back off a little bit and give us some underneath stuff and loosen some things up," Morris said.
Colorado State Coach Mike Bobo, speaking at his weekly news conference Monday, noted Starkel's presence.
"Watching the film, it looked to me like they found their stride a little bit when they went with Starkel," Bobo said. "They seemed to click a little bit better offensively."
Bobo was informed Morris had named Starkel the starter during his news conference.
"It wasn't a surprise to me when he made the decision," Bobo said. "Sometimes it's trying to jump-start your offense. I don't know really the ins and outs of it. I know we're going to prepare for both guys, because both guys have played this year."
Hicks is 21 of 45 (.467) for 241 yards, with no touchdowns or interceptions and an efficiency rating of 91.65, which is well out of the top 100 nationally.
Neither quarterback was fully on his game at Ole Miss. Hicks did not hit running back Devwah Whaley in stride on a swing pass against pressure that resulted in a 9-yard gain to the Ole Miss 48 but might have broken for a score if Whaley hadn't gone down while making the catch. Hicks also overthrew Whaley on a pass down the seam at the Ole Miss 31 that might have resulted in a touchdown.
"Ben played OK," Craddock said. "He missed some throws I wish we had back. Obviously not hitting Devwah down the middle right before half would have tied the game up. That was huge.
"We had a call with C.J. O'Grady there, midway through the second quarter I think it was. He beats the guy and we didn't get the call. That was going to be a touchdown as well."
On that play, a defender appeared to hold O'Grady as he turned up field on a third and 8 from the Ole Miss 19, and there was no flag after O'Grady went to the grass.
Starkel threw the wrong way on what was set up to be a double pass in the third quarter. Had he thrown to Treylon Burks on the right, the intended target O'Grady was running open in the secondary. Instead, he went to Mike Woods on the left, and Woods was tackled for a 14-yard loss.
Starkel also had a 38-yard would-be touchdown to Trey Knox called back due to the Razorbacks having an ineligible receiver downfield. Starkel was not able to spot Treylon Burks on the line of scrimmage covering up tight end Grayson Gunter on that play, and he could have gotten Burks to step back off the line to make Gunter eligible.
"That's what I tell those guys all the time, playing with freshmen out there you'd like to see that and back him up, but he's got to do his job, too," Craddock said.
Starkel played seven snaps in the opener against Portland State before logging the extensive duty at Ole Miss. He was not available for comment Monday, but said on Saturday: "I just need a crumb. That's all I've been saying."
Starkel said he got more in the groove Saturday.
"I felt comfortable coming into the game, as well, but obviously you get a feel for the play caller once you're actually in a game and you start to communicate with him and that's just different," he said. "You don't see that in practice, so having that, getting that relationship with coach Craddock down ... I think that was really good for my confidence this week."
Sports on 09/10/2019
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