Familiar refrain at Arkansas: Hogs need to improve passing

Updated: August 17, 2007, 3:35 AM ET
Associated Press

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Arkansas could only hide its Achilles' heel for so long.

For 10 games last season, the Razorbacks ran over opponents, and in doing so took the pressure off their inconsistent passing game. Finally, during a season-ending three-game losing streak, Arkansas' biggest weakness was exposed.

"I know that you just can't do 100 percent run," coach Houston Nutt said last week. "You've got to be able to do both."

Arkansas' passing struggles last season were nothing new, so promises of improvement will be viewed by some with an I'll-believe-it-when-I-see-it attitude. But as the 2007 season approaches, Nutt and new offensive coordinator David Lee are saying all the right things.

If the Razorbacks had thrown the ball effectively in 2006, they could have played for the national championship. Lee, the man hired to help correct those passing woes, understands what's at stake.

"Yeah, there's pressure," he said. "It's me putting a lot on me right now."

The Razorbacks under Nutt have been among the Southeastern Conference's best rushing teams, culminating last year in tailback Darren McFadden's second-place finish in the Heisman Trophy voting. McFadden and Felix Jones both surpassed 1,000 yards rushing last season.

But against top competition, McFadden and Jones weren't enough. Against LSU, in the November game that snapped the Razorbacks' 10-game winning streak, Arkansas quarterback Casey Dick went 3-for-17.

Arkansas averaged only 149.5 yards a game through the air last season, and things weren't much different the previous one. In 2007, the pressure appears even greater -- any passing struggles could further inflame the controversy over departed quarterback Mitch Mustain.

If Arkansas' passing game had been as effective as the running game over the last half-dozen years, Nutt might not have any offensive coordinator. Instead he's on his second in two seasons. The first, Gus Malzahn, said his no-huddle offense would be part of Arkansas' plans. But the no-huddle wasn't a factor in 2006, and the extent of Malzahn's authority became an unsettling subplot amid an otherwise successful season.

Malzahn eventually left to join the staff at Tulsa. Mustain then transferred, and along with receiver Damian Williams ended up at Southern California. Three people who arrived hoping to help Arkansas pass better -- all gone after one season.

Nutt insists that the Razorbacks are committed to throwing more effectively. He says they were also committed last year, but felt running the ball was their best bet to win. Arkansas went 10-4.

"Winning's the bottom line," Nutt said. "That's how you spell fun. It's W-I-N."

The Razorbacks' phenomenal running backs helped them within a stone's throw of a Bowl Championship Series berth, but Nutt realizes even they can't do it alone.

"How are you going to be able to adjust? How are you going to put points on the board, when you know they're going to overpopulate the line of scrimmage?" Nutt said, outlining this season's big question.

There's reason to believe this talk of improved passing is more than just that. For one thing, Dick will finally begin a season as the undisputed starting quarterback. As a freshman in 2005, he was named the starter after having his redshirt removed with four games remaining. Last year, he was slowed early by injury and didn't become the No. 1 quarterback until November.

Dick and Mustain split time in a Capital One Bowl loss to Wisconsin, but now there's no question who the top choice is. Dick has had all summer to prepare for his role with the first team.

"I think we came a long way in the spring," he said. "We basically worked on the passing game the whole spring."

And Arkansas' wide receivers are a year older. Marcus Monk is expected to be out until at least mid-September with a knee injury, but when healthy, he's one of the SEC's top offensive threats. The senior is Arkansas' career leader with 24 touchdown catches.

Several players will compete for playing time opposite Monk. Robert Johnson moved from quarterback to receiver last season and caught four passes in the Capital One Bowl. London Crawford had two touchdown receptions in limited playing time as a freshman.

"It's going to be important for another receiver to step up. Hopefully I'll be that receiver to step up," Crawford said. "But more than just me, I hope that my whole receiving corps steps up so all of us can get in the rotation, everybody can get reps, everybody can be the best they can be."

Lee has worked with Nutt before at Arkansas, but he spent the last four years with the Dallas Cowboys. Lee says he was able to study the game more while with Dallas, and now he'll have a chance to put what he's learned to the test. He's not giving up too many details about Arkansas' offense, but he says the passing game will be similar to what the pros run.

"He's basically rewritten the passing game," Dick said. "He brought in the Cowboy offense."

The success of that new scheme could make or break the Razorbacks in 2007.

"That's what I did the last four years," Lee said. "Study and prepare for this moment right now."


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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