FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas cornerback Darius Winston has enjoyed the challenge of facing big wide receivers in practice this month.
The 6-foot Winston has had to wrestle with them at the line of scrimmage during practices on a daily basis. He has to be in good position to have any chance to break up passes against the tall targets. Winston said it’s difficult work, but will only make him better as he continues preparing for his senior season.
Winston also said he’s eager to get to gameday because, chances are, Arkansas’ opponents won’t have quite so many big receivers to deal with.
“Yeah, that’s going to be nice,” Winston said earlier this month.
Small and speedy wideouts like 5-foot-10 Jarius Wright and 5-11 Joe Adams caused headaches for opponents last season, carving through defenses en route to 120 catches for 1,769 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2011. But they’re gone now, leaving Arkansas with a philosophical change at the position for 2012.
A much more imposing group, led by receiver Cobi Hamilton and tight end Chris Gragg, is in charge of the SEC’s top passing offense.
The 6-3 receivers were key components to the passing game last season, but weren’t quarterback Tyler Wilson’s primary weapons. They are now, joining converted quarterback Brandon Mitchell (6-4) as Arkansas’ big weapons this preseason.
Wilson said the advantages are endless as Arkansas aims to create mismatches.
“It makes you feel good as a quarterback knowing you’ve got those kind of targets out there,” Wilson said. “They’re not going to be intimidated by anybody they see out there because they’re going to be bigger than everybody.”
Arkansas had three receivers who were under 6-foot in its playing rotation last season with Wright, Adams and Marquel Wade. There aren’t any scholarship receivers who are under 6-foot on the roster this season.
Hamilton has been the biggest chore for Arkansas’ defensive backs this summer, following through as the team’s No. 1 weapon. It was evident in last Saturday’s Fan Day scrimmage, when he caught 11 passes for 165 yards with two touchdowns.
“I feel good,” Hamilton said after the scrimmage. “Just don’t get complacent. Just come out here and keep working every day. Keep getting with Tyler.”
Gragg is equally important. After hauling in 41 catches in his first season as a starter, the Mackey Award candidate is poised for more production this season. The Warren native is a problem in coverage because of his combination of size and speed.
He and Hamilton have been targeted early and often by the Razorbacks, who haven’t been shy about announcing their intentions to get both players the football in 2012.
“It will still start with Cobi Hamilton and Chris Gragg,” offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “They will be the two top guys. … There’s going to be enough competition that we’re going to be good at receiver. I’m very confident of that.”
Mitchell has given the group another big option, making a fluid transition to his new position after spending three years at quarterback. He has used his size well in the slot, working to create space against linebackers and safeties in scrimmage sessions.
It’s what Arkansas was hoping for when they decided to give Mitchell a shot at wideout. The junior is happy he hasn’t disappointed with the season approaching.
“(Petrino) wanted more athletes out there, more playmakers,” Mitchell said about his move. “And with me already know where to line up and things like that, I think it made it a lot more easy on them as coaches – and me as a player – not having to get those freshmen really ready to play right now and putting that pressure on them.”
But Arkansas will get some help from a five-man freshman class at the position this season. The two frontrunners for playing time are Mekale McKay (6-6) and Keon Hatcher (6-2). Junior college transfer Demetrius Wilson (6-3) will play as well.
McKay, especially, has used size to his advantage in scrimmages this preseason. He caught two passes for 76 yards and a touchdown last Friday. Before that, he hauled in a pair of touchdown passes in Arkansas’ first scrimmage early in camp.
The first touchdown came when quarterback Brandon Allen lobbed the ball into the corner of the end zone against the second-team defense. McKay put his basketball skills to use, jumping over two defenders to pull in an impressive touchdown catch.
“He can just out jump you and make plays like that,” Allen said.
“But we have a bunch of tall receivers. You have those big bodies out there, there is going to be a mismatch for any team we play.”
That’s exactly what Arkansas is counting on this season with smaller receivers like Wright and Adams beginning their NFL careers. Wilson is confident Arkansas’ all-around size at receiver and tight end will result in plenty of success.
“When some of those DBs we line up against are facing 6-4, 235-pound receivers … good luck,” Wilson said.
A Closer Look At … RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
Best of the bunch: WR Cobi Hamilton – Arkansas has long believed Hamilton had the best all-around abilities among its receiving corps and the senior will get to prove it this season. He is Arkansas’ unquestioned No. 1 guy and has played like it throughout the preseason. It included an impressive Fan Day scrimmage, when Hamilton caught 11 passes for 165 yards with 2 touchdowns last Friday. Hamilton will need help from the young crew, but he and Wilson will connect plenty this fall.
Watch out for: WR Keon Hatcher – Arkansas knew it needed some freshmen to play right away and Hatcher looks like one of the best bets to help in 2012. The Oklahoma native has been quietly consistent in camp. While he hasn’t made some of the big plays that fellow freshman Mekale McKay turned in during camp, it’s clear Hatcher has the all-around tools to succeed. Perhaps as early as this year.
Biggest strength: Arkansas’ won’t have any problems being bigger than opponents this season. The receiving corps should pose matchup problems because of its size, beginning with veterans like Hamilton (6-3) and Chris Gragg (6-3). But Arkansas also has Mekale McKay (6-6), Brandon Mitchell (6-4) and Demetrius Wilson (6-3) that will line up against opponents. No scholarship player in Arkansas’ receiving corps is under 6 feet, making this group one of the biggest in school history.
Biggest question: Is there enough depth at tight end? Arkansas seemed to have an abundance of depth at the position last season, but is relatively thin entering 2012. Chris Gragg and Austin Tate are the only tight ends with experience. Third-team tight end Alex Voelzke has shown some promise in camp as a redshirt freshman, but how much can he help on game day? The same goes for freshman Demetrius Dean. It’s safe to say the Razorbacks can’t afford any injuries to Gragg or Tate this season.
Projected starters: Receivers — Cobi Hamilton, Sr.; Brandon Mitchell, Jr.; Mekale McKay, Fr.; Tight end – Chris Gragg, Sr.
Other contributors: Receivers — Javontee Herndon, Jr.; Julian Horton, Jr.; Demetrius Wilson, Jr.; Keante Minor, So.; Keon Hatcher, Fr.; D’Arthur Cowan, Fr.; Eric Hawkins, Fr.; Tight End — Austin Tate, Jr.; Alex Voelzke, RS-Fr.; Demetrius Dean, Fr.
That figures: 75 — Combined catches for Cobi Hamilton and Chris Gragg in 2011. It isn’t easy losing veterans like Jarius Wright (66 catches) and Joe Adams (54 catches), but the numbers suggest Arkansas isn’t exactly starting over from scratch for 2012. Gragg and Hamilton ranked No. 3 and No. 4, respectively, on the team in receiver last season and should serve as Tyler Wilson’s main targets in 2012.
Quotable: “Everybody was asking me and I kept laughing every question, you know, every time someone asked me that. The coaches do a great job of recruiting. They bring guys in who can really play this offense. They can catch the football and they can really run. It makes it better for us and we’ve got great quarterbacks to make them look good. So everything ties up together.” — Hamilton on recurring questions about Arkansas’ uncertainty at the receiver position this preseason.