FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas doesn’t have Bobby Petrino calling the shots on offense this season.
But if the first scrimmage of preseason camp is any indication, the Razorbacks will be just fine with offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, quarterback Tyler Wilson and the rest of the crew running the show on the field in the fall.
Arkansas’ offense — which worked without running back Knile Davis — turned in a strong performance through the air during a 79-play scrimmage on the school’s intramural fields Tuesday night.
Wilson was especially efficient, completing 15 of 19 passes for 224 yards with three touchdowns on four possessions. He spread the ball to a variety of receivers, hitting big targets like receiver Cobi Hamilton (5 catches, 96 yards and a touchdown), junior Brandon Mitchell (4 catches, 58 yards and a touchdown), and tight end Chris Gragg (two catches, 37 yards and a touchdown).
“You’ve got to realize Tyler Wilson and a couple of those weapons on the offense are the best in the conference and the country,” Arkansas safety Rohan Gaines said after the scrimmage. “So our main goal is to try to compete with those guys.”
The first-team defense did so early, holding the offense out of the end zone on its first possession. But after they settled for Zack Hocker’s 43-yard field goal, Wilson and the first-team offense got on track and moved downfield to score touchdowns on its final three possessions.
It started with Wilson’s 23-yard touchdown pass to Mitchell, who spent the entire scrimmage working at wide receiver. The junior used his big frame to get open against linebacker Braylon Mitchell, got open down the middle and pulled in the touchdown catch.
Hamilton caught a three-yard touchdown a little later to cap an 11-play, 64-yard drive. Wilson’s final pass was a 32-yard touchdown strike to Gragg.
Offensive players weren’t available for comment after the scrimmage Tuesday, but defensive coordinator Paul Haynes put the performance in perspective for his defense.
“Going against those guys daily, our guys are going to get better,” Haynes said. “I keep telling them that. If we can do good against these guys — if we can stop the run because that’s our main focus right now — then we’ll be OK.”
It didn’t help Arkansas scrimmaged without three injured defensive starters. Linebacker Alonzo Highsmith (hamstring) and safety Eric Bennett (leg injury) watched from the sidelined. Linebacker Tenarius Wright (head/neck) wasn’t on the field after his collision with Davis on Monday night.
Senior Terrell Williams and Otha Peters worked with the first-team defense at linebacker Tuesday night. Gaines, Jerry Mitchell and Alan Turner spent time with the first-team defense at safety.
“It’s tough, but you get the young guys to get the experience,” Haynes said. “That’s the good thing. Every rep that they take, they’re going to get better. That’s how we look at it. We’re going to keep going in there, keep grinding it out.”
Gaines, who broke up a pass intended for Mitchell in the end zone and also dropped running back Dennis Johnson after a short gain on a passing play, was one of the most impressive. The redshirt freshmen has been pressed into more first-team duty thanks to Bennett’s injury and has responded.
In fact, Haynes said after the scrimmage there is a starting safety spot open and Gaines is “kind of pulling away with it” after a strong start.
“Redshirt year for me was just a learning experience,” Gaines said about his 2011 season. “I took some things from older guys that are now in the NFL. They taught me things. I gained weight.”
Gaines wasn’t the only young player to impress Tuesday night. Freshman wide receiver Mekale McKay turned in two of the biggest highlights, using his height (6-foot-6) and athleticism to pull in two touchdown passes from quarterback Brandon Allen. The first came on a 10-yard play in the corner of the end zone when McKay, who also may find his way to the Arkansas basketball team in the winter, outjumped defenders Kaelon Kelleybrew and Jarrett Lake for a touchdown. He later beat freshman cornerback Jared Collins for a 35-yard touchdown.
McKay — who was complimented by Petrino for his knack of beating press coverage Monday — caught four passes for 61 yards in his scrimmage debut.
“He plays basketball,” Arkansas cornerback Tevin Mitchel said. “He’s going to be a pretty good receiver. I enjoyed watching that, him going up and getting the ball like he’s on the court.”
Arkansas’ quarterbacks combined to complete 33 of 49 passes for 506 yards with six touchdowns during the scrimmage. But the defense did take some solace in its work against the run, holding Arkansas running backs to 87 yards on 22 carries. Freshman Jonathan Williams led the way with 39 yards and a touchdown on eight carries. The Hogs’ top two running backs — Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo — combined for 32 yards on nine attempts.
“I think we accomplished our main goal, which was to stop the run,” Gaines said. “Now we’ve got to focus on doing better on the passes. They said Tyler Wilson had a great throwing day, which is good because he’s the best quarterback in the country. But we’ve just got to focus on taking one step at a time. We stopped the run, now we’ve got to stop the pass and put it all together.”