FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas receiver Mekale McKay admits he was a little concerned when coach Bret Bielema was hired last December.
The sophomore wasn’t alone. There were several receivers who raised their eyebrows after learning the program was being taken over by a coach whose offensive plan was centered on a power run game at Wisconsin. It wasn’t exactly what they had grown accustomed to at Arkansas, when a pass-first philosophy had made the program and attractive destination for wideouts.
“At first it was kind of like a big ‘Uh oh,’” McKay said Tuesday. “It was like ‘Aw, man, we’re going to be an all-powerhouse running school.’”
McKay said it didn’t take long for those fears to be eased when offensive coordinator Jim Chaney became the first assistant Bielema hired. They quickly found out Chaney came to Arkansas after guiding one of the Southeastern Conference’s top passing offenses at Tennessee and intended to run a balanced attack with the Hogs.
“It was a big relief off my shoulders,” McKay said.
Arkansas is in the process of developing its new identity this spring, altering the fast-paced, pass-based offense that was one of the SEC’s most prolific throughout the Bobby Petrino era. It has led to some changes for the receivers, who are adapting to the fact the Razorbacks are preaching a physical run-first approach this spring with stars like Tyler Wilson, Cobi Hamilton and Chris Gragg off to the NFL.
But 10 practices also have shown McKay and the rest of the new-look receiving corps they’ll still have opportunities to pull in passes next season. Especially downfield on play-action passes if Arkansas’ run game enjoys success.
“We still have to throw the ball,” Arkansas senior Javontee Herndon said. “We realize that. Coach Chaney, his style is pound it, pound it, then throw it deep. As long as we’re prepared and we’re able to make plays we’ll throw the ball a little more.”
Arkansas may not have stars like Hamilton, Joe Adams, Jarius Wright or Greg Childs at the position this spring, but feels good about the overall receiving corps.
McKay is the top returner after catching 21 passes for 317 yards and 2 touchdowns as a true freshman. There’s also a trio of seniors in Herndon (21 catches, 304 yards, 3 touchdowns), Julian Horton (14 catches, 193 yards, 2 touchdowns) and Demetrius Wilson (9 catches, 117 yards, touchdown). Younger players like sophomores Keon Hatcher (3 catches, 21 yards, touchdown) and D’Arthur Cowan (3 catches, 14 yards) and redshirt freshman Eric Hawkins are helping as well this spring.
Position coach Michael Smith said Tuesday his group is making “positive strides” in the new offense. But he added there’s a way to go as they continue to adjust.
“We are throwing the ball around a little bit,” Smith said. “The biggest adjustment is learning the verbiage we have in this system. Also, just all the little nuances of this offense being lined up in a certain position for a certain play.
“These guys were more of a strictly four-receiver set or three-receiver set and now we are putting them in tight alignments and moving them and doing a lot of motions and things like that. I think that’s the thing these kids are trying to get adjusted to.”
Chaney said Tuesday the Razorbacks remain in the “infant stages” of its passing attack as quarterbacks and receivers try to get on the same page. It was apparent last Saturday when Brandon Allen, Arkansas’ first-team quarterback, only threw 13 passes in a 101-play scrimmage. Four quarterbacks combined to throw 36 passes.
It was a big change from the past, when receivers were targeted often during scrimmage sessions. But Allen said his wideouts are adapting to the new philosophy.
“They know that they’re going to be more deep threat options for us,” Allen said. “Especially with the run game, play action deep pass is something we’re really going to be great at. So they’re excited to catch deep balls and score some touchdowns.”
They’re also learning their role in the run game this spring.
Downfield blocking has always been an important part of the position. It was an area of emphasis under the previous coaching staff. But Arkansas’ team-wide emphasis on added physicality has been extended to receivers this spring as well.
So the Razorbacks have stressed strong blocking from the wideouts and Chaney described it as a work in progress with five practices left this spring.
“The young kids always struggle,” Chaney said. “They come here to catch the ball and we’re asking them to block a little bit. So that’s sometimes a little tough on them. They think every play ought to be a pass play. But there isn’t but one ball.”
The Razorbacks’ receivers understand. They also realize that Arkansas’ offense will be built around a power running game under Bielema, leaving them with opportunities to make an impact with play-action passes next season.
It’s a change, no doubt. But they’re confident they’ll still make an impact.
“We’re just working hard, trying to get in a wide open position for the quarterbacks,” Wilson said. “Coach Chaney has a balanced offense. We’re going to throw the ball a lot. We’re going to run the ball a lot.
“We’re just trying to balance it out and make sure we’re there to make plays.”