Arkansas eager to return to postseason after disappointing 2004

Friday, August 19th 2005, 10:43 am
By: News On 6

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP) _ Houston Nutt expects his team to be motivated this season _ 2004 was a year unlike any since he arrived at Arkansas.

After six straight bowl appearances, the Razorbacks went 5-6 and missed the postseason, and they haven't forgotten.

``Our seniors kept reminding our team,'' Nutt said, ``that it's no fun not getting our reward at the end of the year.''

For a team that returns 16 starters, the Razorbacks should look a lot different than last year. The sense of urgency Nutt described is only part of the change.

Arkansas' 2004 season ended with a 43-14 loss to LSU in Little Rock _ the Razorbacks' first defeat at War Memorial Stadium in 18 games under Nutt. Since then, Arkansas has changed defensive coordinators, closed practices for the first time, turned a wide receiver into a defensive end and _ finally _ decided on a replacement for star quarterback Matt Jones.

``There's more pressure on all of us,'' Nutt said. ``Let all the coaches be better, let all the defensive linemen be better, let the linebackers be better, the secondary ... it's all of us.''

Sophomore quarterback Robert Johnson will learn all about pressure after beating out redshirt freshman Alex Mortensen and freshman Cole Barthel for the starting job this month. Johnson's college experience consists of six brief appearances and 19 pass attempts last year.

Now, he'll have to replace Jones, the SEC's career leader in yards rushing for a quarterback. Jones was drafted in the first round by the Jacksonville Jaguars and is trying to play wide receiver in the NFL.

Nutt said Johnson shouldn't feel any burden trying to measure up to Jones.

``You don't have to step in Matt Jones' shoes,'' Nutt said. ``Basically you cannot. We're not asking you to be him, we're asking you to manage the game.''

Unlike Jones, who was the Razorbacks' only returning starter last year, Johnson will have several proven veterans around him. Wide receiver Marcus Monk set an Arkansas freshman record last season with 37 receptions, and tailback De'Arrius Howard was second on the team behind Jones with 529 yards rushing.

Versitile Peyton Hillis rushed for 240 yards and caught 12 passes as a freshman. He has practiced at tailback, fullback, H-back and tight end already this fall.

``There's no question we have guys on the outside, like Marcus and (wide receiver) Cedric Washington and Peyton Hillis and (tailback) Dedrick Poole, De'arrius Howard,'' quarterbacks coach Roy Wittke said. ``All those guys have made plays for us on Saturday afternoon, Saturday evening in ballgames. We're going to rely on them, especially early in the year, to help our quarterbacks develop some confidence.''

The offensive line expects a boost from the return of Zac Tubbs, who broke his left fibula last year and has had related ankle ligament tears. Tubbs, a preseason second-team All-Southeastern Conference selection, had been progressing ahead of schedule, although he sprained his right ankle in practice on Aug. 13.

``He plays a big part,'' Howard said. ``He's got more experience than a lot of the guys. When he's healthy, he's dangerous.''

Arkansas has even more starters returning on the other side of the ball, but they'll have to work hard to become comfortable under new defensive coordinator Reggie Herring.

After the Razorbacks allowed 397.2 yards per game last season _ their most since 1990 _ defensive coordinator Dave Wommack was fired. Herring left North Carolina State to replace him a few days later.

He arrived with an impressive resume: In one season at N.C. State, Herring helped the Wolfpack improve from No. 89 in total defense in 2003 to No. 1 in the nation last year.

Herring immediately shook things up, trying to make Arkansas quicker. Wide receiver Anthony Brown and linebacker Desmond Sims were moved to defensive end, and other linemen were asked to lose weight.

``We should get better and better and keep improving,'' Herring said. ``This program's still in a base foundation. We're still building, and it's a day-to-day work in progress.''

Senior linebacker Pierre Brown returns after finishing second on the Razorbacks with 60 tackles and recovering a team-high two fumbles, and after replacing the entire secondary before last season, Arkansas now has plenty of experience in the defensive backfield. Senior strong safety Vickiel Vaughn will try to become the first player since Kenoy Kennedy (1998-99) to lead Arkansas in tackles two straight seasons. He had 66 last year.

Nutt said improving the defense will have to be a team effort.

``I expect our defensive line to create more pressure to help the secondary,'' Nutt said. ``Don't give them as much time. The same with the linebackers. ... So, I just think it's everybody _ not just one specific group.''

Nutt held closed practice sessions for the first time last spring, and has continued them during the preseason, saying he wants to keep his team focused.

``The best atmosphere, the best possible learning tool _ it is a closed practice, where a phone is not going off, where a car wreck's not happening, where somebody's not speaking to somebody else,'' Nutt said. ``It is a focus and intensity. We got better because of that in the spring.''

As the season approaches, the Razorbacks have maintained that focus. After last year's disappointment, they know they need to get better.