FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — There’s a sense of urgency to find reliable playmakers at wide receiver for Arkansas this spring.
As a result, the time is now for Deon Stewart and La’Michael Pettway to step up and earn their opportunities. The sophomores, who signed in the 2015 recruiting class, are preparing for their third season on campus. They previously spent their careers in a logjam behind top targets including Drew Morgan and Keon Hatcher.
With those players now out of eligibility, it’s presented a feeling of now or never for Stewart and Pettway. If they are surpassed in the rotation by any of the more-recent signees, they might never regain the inside track to carving out regular playing time. As current starters this spring, they finally have the opportunity to lock down regular playing time.
“Deon is practicing well,” Arkansas wide receivers coach Michael Smith said after the Hogs’ second spring practice last week. “That’s why he earned a lot of time late in the season last year. It wasn’t just because we had some injuries. He put himself in position last year and he’s continued to do that through winter conditioning and these first practices. He’s running No. 1. He’s earned that.
“La’Michael has had his two best practices since he’s been here. I am expecting him to continue to develop because he has such a tremendous upside. He’s really a good wide receiver. His consistency was the thing I questioned in the past, but for the first two days I have been really, really happy.”
Stewart admits the increased chance at playing time elevated his attention to detail. His 2 career catches for 34 yards are second-best among returning players in the position group.
“It was really just laziness of me (last year),” Stewart said, “because I wouldn’t come in and watch film. But this year, I am trying to get it all down.”
Stewart is serving as the starter in the slot so far this spring with Pettway and Jared Cornelius on the outside. Cornelius is the undisputed leader of the group following a breakout junior season which led him to briefly consider leaving early for the NFL.
Ultimately opting to return to Arkansas for his senior season, Cornelius is learning to play all three starting receiver spots. He knows the slot position, where he played last season, extremely well and likes what he sees from Stewart there.
“He’s quick,” Cornelius said of Stewart. “He knows what he’s doing. He’s kind of the second guy that I would say knows the offense best on the receiving team. When you know what you’re doing, you’re able to play fast and get open quick. He’s been doing that.”
Pettway has similar potential with a contrasting skill set. At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, he’ll ideally develop into a possession receiver on the outside where he can use his size advantage against smaller cornerbacks. Coach Bret Bielema believes Pettway is ahead of where the staff would have expected at this point.
“La’Michael, obviously, has always had physical tools,” Bielema said. “It’s just the mental side of it. I think he had to get some stuff right off the field and hopefully he’s done that.”
“We’ve got a lot of guys this year,” Cornelius said. “Lot of young guys and not a lot of experience. But as far as raw talent and god-given ability, we definitely have that covered this year.”