Arkansas is set to begin its first spring under coach Chad Morris next week. The Razorbacks are scheduled to practice 14 times between March 1 and April 9, though another date could be added with the NCAA allowing up to 15 practices. The spring game will be played April 7 at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
As the Razorbacks shift into a spread, up-tempo offense, they’ll need to find some wide receivers who can thrive in the scheme. The preference of the staff would obviously be to find out who those players can be during spring practice.
As new wide receivers coach Justin Stepp aims to bring the group along, here are three things the Hogs need to accomplish this spring at the position:
1. Follow the Stepp(s)
Stepp may be young in the coaching profession, but he’s already built a reputation for developing star wide receivers.
The 34-year-old was Morris’ wide receivers coach during all three of his seasons at SMU. During that time, he oversaw the development of Trey Quinn and Courtland Sutton — one of the most productive receiving duos in college football last season. Both caught passes for more than 1,000 yards and each scored 13 total touchdowns.
What’s interesting about Quinn and Sutton is their drastically differing skill sets. Quinn is a 6-foot slot receiver whose career blossomed after he transferred from LSU following the 2015 season. He’s now projected to be taken in the middle rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft. Sutton is a big target at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds. He was a 3-star prospect who has turned into a potential first-round NFL draft pick after three impressive seasons at SMU.
Arkansas has players with similar skill sets already on the roster. If Stepp can help turn Quinn into a highly-productive player, maybe he can do the same with Jarrod Barnes. The same can be said of Sutton and Brandon Martin.
Building a relationship between Stepp and his players is a process that has already started, but will be amplified beginning with spring practice. If the receivers dedicate themselves to following his lead, big things may be in store for their future.
2. Identify the top target
There isn’t a clear go-to receiver on the roster. In Morris’ first eight seasons as a college offensive coordinator and head coach, his top receiver has caught passes for at least 860 yards. The Hogs haven’t had a player reach that mark since 2012.
Jared Cornelius, who is returning for a fifth season, was expected to be the top target entering last season. But an Achilles injury during Arkansas’ third game of 2017 forced him to have surgery and miss the remainder of the season. Maybe he can regain his form from 2016, when he earned the honor of first-team all-SEC slot receiver by Pro Football Focus. It’ll be interesting to see how he looks in the spring and how much he’s able to do. His injury typically requires four-to-six months of recovery time. He’s currently at five months since surgery.
Once Cornelius was sidelined, Jonathan Nance stepped into the role of go-to target. He led the Hogs in catches (37), receiving yards (539) and receiving touchdowns (5).
Whether it’s Cornelius, Nance or another receiver, Arkansas certainly wants to find a top option. Ideally, the Hogs will be able to do so with someone stepping up this spring.
3. Use the speed
The majority of Arkansas’ roster could use an upgrade in speed, but not an issue with the receivers. The position group has plenty of it. Jordan Jones and De’Vion Warren are leading the way in that department, with Deon Stewart and Nance not far behind.
Having that speed is one thing, but using it effectively is another. The new staff would be wise to get Jones in 1-on-1 situations where he can run by a defensive back, or get Warren the ball in space where he has just one defender to beat for a big gain.
That goes for everyone within the receiver crops. It will be the coaches’ responsibility to identify their strengths and find ways to use them, because the group is far from devoid of talent.