Arkansas football coach Bret Bielema said last spring it was taking redshirt freshman Damon Mitchell some time to come to grips with his move to wide receiver.
But the former quarterback made his first appearance in the post-practice interview room since making the switch Thursday. It was a sign he’s settling into his new role.
“I’m really liking it, getting adjusted and learning the ins and outs,” Mitchell said.
The New Jersey native is getting his first extended work at the position after giving it a shot on a trial basis late last spring. It wasn’t a move he wanted at first, but said he came to grips with it after several conversations with coaches and teammates.
Mitchell said A.J. Derby, who moved from quarterback to tight end as well last spring, was particularly helpful in warming up to the change. Derby told Mitchell if he decides to make the move to “buy into it and attack it.”
Wide receivers coach Michael Smith said it also helped Mitchell to realize the staff had experience with transitions. Smith worked with Chris Harper, who now plays for Green Bay, as he transitioned from quarterback to receiver at Kansas State.
“I think Duwop kind of saw the writing on the wall also,” Smith said. “You have an opportunity to play, and that’s what he wants to do. So although he wants to be a quarterback, the move out there gives him an opportunity to play early.”
Mitchell, who also had the option of moving to safety, decided wide receiver was the best option because he knew the offense. His potential was clear in the spring-ending Red-White game, when Mitchell caught three passes for 27 yards.
“I know in the spring game, when the lights came on, he showed up,” Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. “There’s something about game day that Duwop likes, and that’s a damn good credit to a football player.”
There’s still plenty of room for growth. In fact, Mitchell targeted his work as a blocker in the run game as the biggest need for improvement.
But Mitchell is eager to carve out a role with Arkansas’ offense this season.
“Getting the ball in your hands is exciting and I feel like I can make things happen,” Mitchell said.
No QB for Derby
Bielema opened the possibility of Derby earning some work at quarterback in preseason camp. The senior said Thursday he hasn’t taken any snaps at his previous position this week, but will do “what the coaches ask me to do.”
“If they want to make sure I stay and know the checks and anything like that, I want to be able to do that just in case worst-case scenario comes around,” Derby said.
Arkansas is preparing Brandon Allen, Austin Allen and Rafe Peavey to man the position this season. Derby, meanwhile, is expected to play an important role in Arkansas’ offense after making a smooth transition to tight end.
“I feel really good about everything right now,” Derby said. “Every day I’m trying to get better at blocking and that’s becoming more natural as we go through. The route running, the concepts, that comes natural just knowing the quarterback position.”
Chaney said his group was plagued by sloppiness during Wednesday’s practice. But there was much-needed improvement a day later.
“They responded pretty well to some harsh criticism from the coaching staff last night and it was good to see a bunch of kids respond,” Chaney said.
Arkansas was in shoulder pads for the first time Wednesday and Chaney said it was as if “we forgot all the details of our assignments.” He said the blunders came from every position, including quarterback Brandon Allen, who threw an interception.
Allen said he thought the Hogs were “just feeling for ourselves” because of the heat and it affected their performance. But that changed Thursday.
“We came out with the wrong mindset of getting ready to work, and so our practice reflected that,” Allen said. “We were slow, we had a lot of mental errors out there, a few dropped passes, a few missed blocks and missed assignments. The combination of not being prepared to practice made us a little bit, not on top of our game.”
• Allen estimated that the Razorbacks have 65 to 70 percent of their offense installed after four practices. It could be close to 90 percent by the end of the week. “We’re putting in quite a big, but it’s nothing we can’t handle,” Allen said. “Just by us getting all those plays in so soon, we’ll be able to rep those plays and everything we need to be repped to be ready for Auburn.”
• Right tackle Brey Cook had a gash across the bridge of his nose after Thursday’s practice. Cook said it came from a collision with defensive end Deatrich Wise: “Just a pass blocking drill, kind of butted helmets and my helmet kind of came down and busted it open. It looks nasty. I’m sure it’ll keep getting worse, but part of the game.”
• Hebron (Texas) High offensive lineman Zach Rogers signed a financial aid agreement with Arkansas. He is the second 2015 prospect to sign with the Hogs, joining Charleston quarterback Ty Storey. Scout.com rates Rogers as a four-star prospect and the top center in the nation. “We think he is one of the best offensive linemen in the class of 2015 and shows the mental and physical toughness that we expect our linemen to exhibit on and off the field,” Bielema said in a news release.
• Smith said Mitchell, cornerback D.J. Dean and wide receiver Jared Cornelius are being evaluated as punt returners this week. Smith also mentioned seven players who are being looked at on kick returns (former Dollarway safety Joshua Liddell, Cornelius, wide receiver Keon Hatcher, running back Korliss Marshall, wide receiver Drew Morgan, wide receiver Eric Hawkins, and cornerback Jared Collins).