FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ receiving corps was short-handed during last Saturday’s scrimmage in Razorback Stadium.
Demetrius Wilson was held out of contact work as he continues to recover from last summer’s knee injury. Eric Hawkins was sidelined after suffering a head injury earlier in the week. And D’Arthur Cowan continued to spend his spring concentrating on academics, missing another practice.
It didn’t leave much rest for the remaining receivers. But Drew Morgan didn’t mind.
“I’m not complaining,” Morgan said. “The more reps I get, the happier I am. So I mean, it’s a win-win situation for everybody. All the younger guys start to get more reps, which gets good experience for the whole team.”
Morgan and the rest of his teammates took advantage of the opportunity, too.
The sophomore led all receivers with five catches for 109 yards in the 101-play scrimmage. He wasn’t alone. Freshman Jared Cornelius caught four passes for 60 yards and junior college transfer Cody Hollister grabbed three passes for 43 yards.
All three were playing in their first spring scrimmages. So receivers coach Michael Smith said the scrimmage was a good start as Arkansas tries to strengthen a passing game that was among the Southeastern Conference’s worst last season.
“I think our kids just have a better feel for what we’re doing in the passing game,” Smith said. “Not to say the guys that were here last year didn’t understand it, it’s just we’ve shaved some stuff off. We narrowed the offense down and just wanted our guys to go out there and play football and just use their natural, God-given talent to just go out there and play ball. Right now the guys are doing that.”
The position was a question mark after last season’s struggles. Departed senior Javontee Herndon led the group with 31 catches for 437 yards, but only one other wide receiver — Keon Hatcher — caught more than 12 receptions.
The Razorbacks believe there’s more potential for success in 2014, beginning with Wilson’s return from last season’s torn anterior cruciate ligament. Arkansas also has Hatcher back after the junior caught 27 passes for 346 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Razorbacks are watching the growth of two newcomers this spring as well.
Junior college transfer Cody Hollister, who began his career at Nevada, and freshman Jared Cornelius enrolled early to participate in spring drills and have shown promise. Hollister said it was good to get some game-like experience, practicing in Razorback Stadium for the first time since his arrival.
“I can only imagine all the people being there,” Hollister said. “It was good getting a little bit of a game situation. You see what you need to work on, too. … But getting that first little scrimmage out of the way was really good for the team.”
Then there’s Morgan. The former Greenwood High star played in 10 games last season, but didn’t catch any passes from Arkansas’ quarterbacks.
He shrugged off the lack of an impact as a true freshman.
“If the ball doesn’t come my way it doesn’t come my way,” Morgan said. “It normally means I’m getting somebody else open. Whatever it takes to win.”
Morgan was the open receiver last Saturday. With Wilson out, Arkansas told Morgan he was moving from his slot receiver spot to the ‘X’ position. He adjusted quickly and turned in a few big plays, including a 21-yard catch on third down that set up tight end Alex Voelzke’s 3-yard touchdown catch from quarterback A.J. Derby.
Morgan also had a 40-yard reception earlier in the scrimmage.
“What I think I appreciate more about Drew is just his approach this year,” Smith said. “He was just a green freshman that wanted to get on the field and play and I think he got to observe that it’s different playing in the SEC than playing high school ball. But he’s welcomed in both Cody and Jared with open arms and has been really vocal with helping those guys out. He’s an Arkansas guy through and through.
“He’s playing fast right now and he made some catches and some runs Saturday in the scrimmage that showed he can play at this level.”
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said it was a good scrimmage for the entire group, calling it the best performance from the wide receivers since his arrival. He included Morgan, who Bielema thinks has been motivated by the new faces this spring.
“To be quite honest, when you are a player in the program and a player comes into the program behind you and makes some plays, you suddenly get a lot better yourself,” Bielema said. “I think competition brings the best out of people.”
Morgan said it has helped the entire group. He believes there’s more comfort and confidence at wide receiver this spring as Arkansas continues to prepare for 2014.
“I definitely feel like I’m in the role this year,” Morgan said about his spot in the rotation. “A lot of learning points last year. I think we got off on the right start with quarterbacks and receivers, really caught the ball well, really made a big improvement. Not only from last year, but the offseason and stuff. …
“But we have improvements to make. We’re nowhere near satisfied.”