Wonder Boys' quarterbacks must make up for lost time

Updated: August 26, 2006, 1:08 PM ET
Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK -- One quarterback got hurt in an intramural basketball game. The other went down on the second day of spring practice.

Not an ideal situation for an Arkansas Tech team trying to install a new spread offense.

"It was absolutely the worst," coach Steve Mullins said. "We do all these changes and get the quarterback involved a lot more in the running game. And then, bam! They're not there anymore."

Arkansas Tech enters the 2006 season in a state of transition -- one made all the more difficult by injuries to Justin Ray and Cole Barthel. With the two signal-callers sidelined, the Wonder Boys practiced with converted receivers playing quarterback in the spring.

Ray and Barthel are healthy now, and they have some catching up to do, but Mullins is relieved to have them back for practice.

"We've actually thrown balls and completed passes," he joked.

The Wonder Boys went 7-3 in 2005, falling short in their bid to repeat their Division II playoff appearance of the previous season. Senior quarterback Jason Campbell was nagged by injuries, and although Arkansas Tech started 5-0, none of those wins were by more than 10 points. The Wonder Boys stayed in Gulf South Conference title contention, but they lost their last two games to Harding and Central Arkansas.

Arkansas Tech opens the 2006 season Aug. 31 against Northeastern State of Oklahoma. The Wonder Boys will play their five home games at Russellville High School's Cyclone Stadium while the team's home field -- Buerkle Field -- undergoes renovation.

Arkansas Tech returns only four starters on offense and four on defense. The Wonder Boys especially need the latter unit to improve after allowing almost 30 points per game in 2005 -- Arkansas Tech plans to use a 3-4 defense this year.

"We've got a lot of new faces on defense, too, and we've gone to an odd-man front to try to get more speed on the field," Mullins said. "Three defensive linemen as opposed to four. Not that we haven't done it in the past, but now, that being our base, we'll have more repetitions and be able to match up a little bit better as we see all these spread offenses in our league."

The Wonder Boys, of course, will be one of those teams running a spread offense this season. Replacing Campbell at quarterback is a top priority.

"The majority of the reason that we changed our offense was because of Justin and Cole," Mullins said. "Both of these guys -- not only do they have decent arms, but they're pretty darn good athletes, too."

Ray and Barthel are both sophomores. Barthel is a 24-year-old who spent four years playing minor league baseball before ending up with Arkansas' football team last year. After spending 2005 deep on the Razorbacks' depth chart, Barthel transferred.

He said he'd have liked to have played somewhere in Division I, but he didn't want to have to sit out a year after transferring. Barthel said there hasn't been much discussion over whether he or Ray will play -- they might end up splitting time. Barthel just hopes he's found the right school and team this time.

"I think it'll work out this year," he said. "I've gone through a little bit of bad luck the last couple years, but I think it'll change."

Arkansas Tech's top rusher and receiver both return. R.J. Vanhook ran for 586 yards last year -- after rushing for 1,089 in 2004. Mark Caldwell caught 42 passes for 639 yards and six touchdowns in '05.

Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index