FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas sophomore Drew Morgan wanted to prove he was worthy of playing time after having only three passes thrown his way last season.
His first week of preseason camp — which was capped by Saturday’s scrimmage in Razorback Stadium — showed the Razorbacks that Morgan may be capable of stepping into a starting spot and playing an important role in Arkansas’ offense.
Morgan was the star of Arkansas’ 93-play scrimmage, catching six passes for 117 yards and two touchdowns. The 6-foot, 194-pound receiver made his biggest impression by pulling in a 43-yard pass from starting quarterback Brandon Allen, then added 25- and 16-yard touchdown catches.
“I thought Drew Morgan stood out,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said.
Morgan was the leader of a receiving corps being counted on to lift a passing offense that was one of the SEC’s worst last season. After one week, the Greenwood native has grown enough — along with Keon Hatcher, Demetrius Wilson, Cody Hollister and Jared Cornelius — to be part of a five-man nucleus that Bielema and the Razorbacks already have targeted as the program’s primary pass catchers.
Morgan said earlier this week he planned to get that type of opportunity in 2013, but never made an impact on the rotation. He did play in 10 games, but never caught a pass and promises it won’t happen again this fall.
“I want to catch 20 or 30 balls as a sophomore because last year not catching any motivated me,” Morgan said last Thursday. “I didn’t catch any my freshman year so I am going to go have a breakout season and build my resume right now.”
Morgan said he worked extensively with Arkansas strength an conditioning coach Ben Herbert to add size and speed to make it happen. Arkansas receivers coach Michael Smith said earlier this week it has made a noticeable difference.
“Out of all my guys right now, Drew is probably playing the best,” Smith said after Thursday’s practice. “I’m super ecstatic about the way Drew is catching the ball, the way he’s competing. The biggest thing I think Drew did this summer is that he got quicker. That’s something I wanted him to work on, and he did it. Right now he’s playing well, he’s running with the ones and doing an excellent job for us right now.”
The success carried over to Saturday’s practice. His 43-yard catch was the first big play of the scrimmage. It also proved to be the second-longest gain of the day.
But Morgan also had success on a crossing route and through middle of the field.
“He caught all those balls at Greenwood and I knew he could catch,” Bielema said. “He reminds me a lot of the player I had, (former Wisconsin receiver) Jared Abbrederis. Not just because they’re white wide receivers. It’s not that. … It’s that, for them, they have optimal speed but they have to catch everything. They have to be perfect on their routes. They have to understand the correct split. They’ve got to have great communication with their quarterbacks.”
Morgan seems to be on the same page with Allen, who went 12 for 22 for 191 yards and two touchdowns. Allen started slow until connecting with Morgan for the 43-yard gain, then closed strong.
He connected on deep balls to Morgan and Hatcher (41 yards). Allen also had success during a redzone portion of Saturday’s scrimmage, throwing his two touchdown passes to Morgan during a five-play stretch.
Allen wasn’t perfect, but Bielema said it was a good day for his starter.
“Brandon Allen was the guy that we have seen all camp,” Bielema said. “Very confident, very in control. I think he has shown some leadership toward the players on the field when they do something well or they don’t.”
But backup quarterback Austin Allen also showed more confidence with the second-team offense, too. He completed nine straight to start his scrimmage — including a 48-yard completion to Damon Mitchell — and finished 16 for 20 for 190 yards.
Allen also got one series with the starting group.
Meanwhile, freshman Rafe Peavey went 7 for 10 for 44 yards.
“I wanted to see Austin and Rafe play, so I didn’t need to see all the window dressings and extra toppings and all the extra stuff that we do,” Bielema said. “I wanted to see them just play and I thought they did it.”
Bielema said that was the goal of Saturday’s scrimmage. The Razorbacks wanted to get a better sense of which players they could count on and got a few answers.
He said the new “personality” of Arkansas’ defense showed up. The starters forced an early turnover when defensive back Carroll Washington knocked the ball out of running back Kody Walker’s hands and it was recovered by Trey Flowers. The defense was credited with seven sacks, including two by freshman linebacker Randy Ramsey. There was better play from the secondary as well.
“I think our defensive back end made some nice plays on the ball, lot more big hits, lot more breaks on the ball,” Bielema said. “There was a lot more disruption in this first scrimmage than I probably saw all of last camp.”
Arkansas’ run game was short-handed before the scrimmage began because of Alex Collins’ groin injury. Then Jonathan Williams left with a hamstring injury after just four carries. But 15 different players caught passes in Arkansas’ efforts to find dependable playmakers and expand its passing offense after last year’s struggles.
There’s plenty of room for improvement. But Bielema also said there’s progress.
“I couldn’t be more pleased as a head coach walking off the field after six days knowing where we are at,” Bielema said. “I know we are so much further along than we were a year ago a this time and that to me is very exciting.”
Morgan was an example of just that with his scrimmage performance Saturday.
He never made an impact as a freshman, but has plans for 2014.
“Get on the field and make big plays,” Morgan said last week.