Freshmen speed gives Arkansas options at receiver
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Among all the veterans who will catch for the Razorbacks this season, it's a couple of speedy newcomers who could tempt the team to go deep -- something missing from the offense in recent years.
Arkansas' receiving corps is as flush with experienced players as it has been since coach Houston Nutt arrived in Fayetteville in 1998.
But the speed of new arrivals Chris Baker and Willie Hordge has coaches, players and fans thinking about the long game.
"Me and Willie, we believe we can contribute to the team," Baker said. "We just have to work day by day until the season begins."
Hordge, the fastest, spent the summer running track and plans to run for the Arkansas track team. He ran the 100 meters in 10.21 seconds last year.
Baker runs a 4.27 40-yard dash and averaged 20 yards per catch as a high school senior. Baker signed as a member of the Razorbacks' 2002 recruiting class, but had to play at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia last year to clear up some academic problems.
For Baker, his first Razorback practice Monday was a long time coming.
"There was a lot of relief today," said Baker, who played against junior varsity teams from North Carolina and Virginia Tech at Hargrave last year. "It's been a long road, but I maintained and I made my way through."
Baker and Hordge, who also will work at cornerback during August drills, were the first two players Nutt mentioned Monday when asked about freshmen who caught his eye on Arkansas' first day of practice for the 2003 season.
They joined an experienced group led by George Wilson and Richard Smith, who have combined to catch 199 passes the past three seasons. The group also includes DeCori Birmingham, Carlos Ousley, Tom Crowder and Steven Harris.
"(Baker) is going to be OK," Wilson said. "He's a little raw in some areas ... but the talent, the size, the speed is all there. He's not going to have a problem getting on the field as long as he can learn the offense and the playbook."
Receivers coach James Shibest said after one day it's too early to tell if his freshmen are ready, but he liked what he saw.
"We'll put them in situations and see how they handle them," Shibest said.
Junior quarterback Matt Jones may catch a few passes this year playing some at receiver. But if Arkansas is going to open up its passing attack under new passing game coordinator Roy Witkke, the new receivers likely will play a big role.
The Razorbacks haven't used a deep-threat receiver since Anthony Lucas completed his record-breaking career in 1999. Lucas has the only 1,000-yard receiving season (1,007 in 1998) in school history and he left as Arkansas' career leader in yards and touchdowns with 2,879 and 23.
In the three seasons since Lucas and quarterback Clint Stoerner completed their eligibility, the Razorbacks have ranked 11th, 12th and 12th among Southeastern Conference passing offenses. The average amount of yards have decreased each season, too.
Not having a deep threat has been somewhat of a misnomer, according to Wilson.
"You say we don't have a speed guy, but we haven't even stretched the field deep," said George Wilson, who has caught 94 passes for 1,251 yards in 28 games. "Our offense the past three years has been run, throw short to the sideline, throw short to the middle."
Wilson and Smith have each caught 10 touchdowns and they have been stable receivers over the three seasons since Lucas left. Both are considered excellent possession receivers, capable of making clutch receptions, but they haven't been counted on to beat defenders downfield.
Witkke's plans to throw deep and use tight ends and running backs to soften the middle of the field excites Wilson.
"Coach Witkke is a superb coach," Wilson said. "He's already brought the quarterbacks a long way from where they were last year."
Wilson became an unquestioned leader last year during Arkansas' 9-5 season and he looked like an extra coach during Monday's practice. He made sure freshmen who dropped passes did their required 10 push-ups and he even made sure a few of the veterans paid their penance for drops.
But he sees great things in Arkansas' young players.
"We had to take them under our wing and slowly take them through the process of learning the formations and our offense," Wilson said. "You have to take baby steps. It's a thousand-mile journey, but today they took their first step."
For Baker and Hordge, it was a very quick first step.
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index