FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. - Arkansas knocked out its sixth practice of the 2006 fall camp Thursday in full pads, and while sophomore quarterback Casey Dick sat out for the third-straight day, true freshman Mitch Mustain and junior Robert Johnson stepped up and were impressive.
It rained in the afternoon, but the field dried quickly while still cooling it off. It allowed the team to practice outdoors. The temperature came down quite a bit for the 6:50 p.m. start, and the weather remained pleasant the entire time. With Dick sitting out and Mustain's play today, there is battle shaping up for the starting job. The plan remains to name a starter by midweek next week.
Mustain, a former five-star recruit who was named Gatorade and Parade Magazine High School Football Player of the Year, has been doing better than a normal freshman this camp, and Thursday he showed he is a legitimate candidate for the starting spot with his best day of the camp. Mustain threw a touchdown pass to junior split end Marcus Monk that was called back for offensive pass interference. But he threw back-to-back touchdown strikes the next two plays. This all happened during redzone work from about 20 yards out.
In one-on-one work, the true freshman found three receivers in-a-row on long deep balls, hitting them perfectly in stride. He also moved the ball effectively in scrimmage work. In recent practices, the quarterbacks have had little time to get rid of the ball, but they had some time on Thursday.
"Yesterday, the defense kind of got the best of us," Mustain said. "We had a goal to come out here and look better today. I think we did. The offense executed well today. I could tell the difference in the pass rush and the time I had to check all my options there. I thought we looked alright."
Nutt was impressed with the young gunslinger, and he also called it Mustain's best night of practice, so far. One adjustment Mustain has had to make is taking snaps from under center. Most every one of his 47 touchdown passes and 3,817 passing yards last season came out of a variation of the shotgun formation.
"He's getting better, getting more comfortable with things, with the checks," Nutt said. "Things just like the snap. If you look at it, he very rarely took a snap from up under the center in high school, and you're doing both. You're mixing it up. He's feeling comfortable getting the ball to Peyton and Marcus Monk and of course his teammate Damian Williams."
The only time Mustain appeared to struggle was in pass skel, and appearances were deceiving because several catchable balls were dropped. Receiver London Crawford, running back Peyton Hillis and tight ends Marc Winston and Andrew Davie all dropped Mustain passes around the same time.
Williams has had his best day five times in-a-row. He caught a Johnson touchdown pass in scrimmage work that was defended well, but Williams made a great adjustment and pulled the ball in for the score. Williams also scored on a screen pass from Mustain. Though some receivers struggled early, everyone stepped up later in practice, and that's a concept the coaches have preached to the players all summer - be consistent, and staying focused when tired.
"Damian Williams had a good day today. London Crawford, and Rod Coleman, Chris Baker, these guys are really coming on and making plays for us. That's what this camp is about. We're trying to see who's going to compete and who's going to make the play when we need it."
With all the talent at receiver, competition is as strong as ever.
"You have to step you're game up anytime you're on the field," senior flanker Cedric Washington said. "I try not to even pay attention to the quarterbacks. I don't even know where the ball is coming from, I just know when it gets there."
Dick is not the only injured Razorback. Junior cornerback Chris Houston, having a fantastic camp, banged his head Wednesday and sat out Thursday. He may have a slight concussion and was suffering from some headaches. He will likely sit out tomorrow but be ready for Saturday's 6:40 p.m. scrimmage. True freshman linebacker Chip Gregory has a slightly dislocated shoulder, but coaches are not too concerned with it since it has happened before to him, and junior college transfer Chris Wade also hurt his shoulder. Fellow true freshman linebacker Ryan Powers sat out the entire day with a hamstring pull, but he is expected back on Monday. True freshman Jim Hart also did not dress and is coming off MCL and ACL offseason knee surgery.
But so far, the biggest injury concern, outside of running back Darren McFadden's big left toe - is Dick's lower back. McFadden's status seems more clear in the sense that he will not be a possibility to come back day in and day out. Dick is day-to-day, according to Nutt. Dick says the muscle keeps contracting and will not stay loose.
"You don't want to go out there and just kill yourself, so we're goint to take the necessary precautions, aim at Saturday," Dick said. "It's like taking a screwdriver and trying to hit you in the back with it. It kind of hurts pretty bad, but we're going to see if we can get it calmed down."
To avoid injury, Arkansas has placed Hillis, Felix Jones and Monk in green jerseys, though Wednesday Nutt said they would just wear red but be consided 'off-limits' to defenders.
"You know how defensive people are," Nutt said. "They're a little bit twisted in some ways. They have this rage in their eyes, and that's what you want. They're trying to get off blocks and when you're all in red jerseys, [Herring] said they can't see. They go to the ball."
The jerseys help Monk avoid being hit by a younger defensive back or linebacker who does not know any better when Arkansas' 6-foot-6 wideout drags across the middle of the field. Monk has had shoulder problems in the past. However, on a deep pass, Hillis got popped so hard by Michael Grant when he was going for the ball that the star fullback's helmet came off, and he was almost ready to fight. It was incidental contact, and it was a high hit - not aimed at Hillis' legs.
"Michael Grant's competing for a position - very understandable," Nutt said. "You know, it was up high. I don't mind. You can't hurt Peyton up high. It's when you go down low or cheap shot him when he's doesn't see it, that's something. As long as it's up high, that doesn't matter because he's a little hulk."
Offensive tackle Andrew Davie is the only position move from practice, having moved from offensive tackle to tight end. The Hogs will hit the practice fields tomorrow at about 10 a.m. and come back for their first two-a-day of fall camp again at 6:50 p.m.
*-The devil is beating his wife' is an old southern saying meaning it is raining while the sun is still shining.
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