FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas receiver Keon Hatcher wasn’t counting on such a heavy workload during the Razorbacks’ 28-24 loss at Rutgers last Saturday.
But after missing much of Arkansas’ first three games because of a hamstring injury, the sophomore certainly wasn’t complaining.
“Come game time I was feeling great and coach threw me out there,” Hatcher said.
Arkansas may not have its starting quarterback Saturday, but the Razorbacks feel much better about their depth at wide receiver after the sophomore returned last week. The Owasso, Okla., native led the Razorbacks with four catches for 45 yards in the Rutgers loss, but also was involved in other ways. He had two rushing attempts for 19 yards and two kickoff returns for 38 more.
It all equaled the best game of Hatcher’s career and also helped him earn a promotion this week. Hatcher is listed as a starter on the Razorbacks’ depth chart ahead of senior Julian Horton for Saturday’s game against 10th-ranked Texas A&M.
“He’s just got that mojo,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said Thursday. “He’s a big, strong, athletic kid that I think the more you can incorporate him in your game plan, and he probably gets better with more attempts. He’ll be back there as a kickoff guy, too, and I think he brings a little something there.”
Arkansas believed Hatcher — who caught three passes for 21 yards and a touchdown as a true freshman in 2012 — would be a big part of their passing plans this season. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound receiver showed plenty of promise in the spring and early preseason because of his size, speed, hands and athleticism.
But his progress was put on hold after he suffered the hamstring.
Hatcher said it happened while he was running routes and chalked it up to not being warmed up enough before the practice. And the injury lingered. He was well enough to play during the season opener and caught one pass for 27 yards, but Hatcher re-aggravated his sore hamstring on the play and missed the next two games.
Bielema said earlier this week Hatcher’s injury — combined with D’Arthur Cowan’s broken foot — put a dent in Arkansas’ receiving corps early in the season.
“I think one of the biggest struggles we went through in these first four games was at the wide receiver position,” Bielema said. “It was a thin position already. We lost what could be two of our top three players with D’Arthur Cowan and Keon Hatcher.”
Hatcher was well enough to piece together some practice time last week and Arkansas was hopeful he could contribute. Hatcher was, too, and said he felt great when it mattered most on game day. So Arkansas got him the football.
The receiver was the first player to catch a pass from AJ Derby at Rutgers, pulling in a short completion and turning it into an 18-yard gain on third-and-3. The Razorbacks opened the second half by handing the ball to Hatcher on an end-around and did it again four plays later. Hatcher gained 19 yards on the two plays.
“It kind of surprised me a little bit,” Hatcher said. “But we have some great receivers here. Coach can put any one of us back there because we all can make plays. I was fortunate to have him me doing the reverses and I tried to make the best out of it.”
Arkansas receivers coach Michael Smith said Hatcher played well. It came in a loss, but Smith said the Razorbacks were glad to see Hatcher back with them.
“He brought a lot of energy and that’s kind of the way Keon is as a kid,” Smith said. “We’re happy to have him back and look forward to having him go again this week.”
It looks like Hatcher will get to do so as a first-time starter Saturday.
Hatcher said the coaches informed him of his new role Monday and said it was “great to hear.” He’s scheduled to start opposite leading receiver Javontee Herndon, but Hatcher also understands he’ll have to fight to keep the spot.
“We have some wide receivers out here working that want it just as bad as I do,” Hatcher said. “So we all are going to be working out there competing and we are going to make each other better.”
But Hatcher said he’s happy to be healthy and contributing in any capacity after being forced to watch from the sideline for two games because of the injury.
“I feel great,” Hatcher said. “I’m back to 100 percent and ready to make some plays.”
Texas A&M (3-1) at Arkansas (3-1)
• When: 6 p.m. Saturday
• Where: Reynolds Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
• TV/Radio: ESPN2/KABZ-FM 103.7
• SEC records: Texas A&M 0-1, Arkansas 0-0