FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas started three different quarterbacks in 2018, but none of them are with the team this season despite all being underclassmen.
Connor Noland chose to concentrate on baseball at Arkansas while Ty Storey and Cole Kelley transferred to new schools. Storey is the starting quarterback at Western Kentucky, a school that faces Arkansas on Nov. 9. Kelley is a junior at Southeastern Louisiana.
It appeared that Arkansas had solidified the quarterback position when they added grad transfers Ben Hicks from SMU and Texas A&M’s Nick Starkel as well as added four-star KJ Jefferson from the prep ranks.
But entering the seventh game of the season on Saturday, Arkansas doesn’t know if it will be Hicks or Starkel at quarterback to start the game.
So far this season, Hicks has started two games with Starkel getting the other four starts. Chad Morris was asked about how the quarterback reps will be divided this week.
” Nick and Ben will get the one reps,” Morris said. “They were in here last night and everybody was ready to get back to work last night, which was very encouraging. So, with those guys getting a share of the one reps this week. I think the whole thing is consistency as a team, consistency as an offense. That’s really kind of what we’re looking for in this.”
Starkel has started the last four games since replacing Hicks at halftime of the Ole Miss game. But Starkel was off on Saturday night against the Wildcats. He was 7 of 19 for 41 yards including a sack before giving way to Hicks midway through the third quarter.
“He got hit early,” Morris said. “But I, again, that’s … your quarterback, you understand those things. That has never rattled Nick. Nick’s got an incredible arm. He’s got great talent. Was his hips not open enough? I mean we look at all the technical things from a quarterback standpoint. In the same sense, sometimes you’ve got to sit in that pocket, and he did sit in the pocket and deliver the ball.
“He’ll be the first to admit he wasn’t on. But I’ve watched him in person be on many a times on those same plays and hit them in stride. So those are the things he’ll work through, he’ll battle through, we’ll help him through. And he’ll be just fine.”
Last week during the open week, Starkel talked about how the coaches had placed an emphasis on not turning the ball over. Starkel was injured against Texas A&M when he tackled the Aggie who had made the interception.
“You practice one way the whole week always getting it,” Starkel said. “You always getting a look, always getting guys blocked where we have Rakeem (Boyd) running wide open. You have a little shuttle pass and we get in the game and the guy kinda plays in between us. So the shuttle pass turns into a real throw with the guy on him.
“I’ve just got to know sometimes they get us. Sometimes they beat us on a play. I’ve got to throw the ball away. I’ve got to do a better job of throwing the ball away or hold onto it and just run out there. Protect points in the red zone. Every possession has got to end with a kick. That’s something we’ve really stressed this week that every possession has got to end with a kick. We’ve always got to reserve the right to punt and also we’re not bad playing with a field goal instead of an interception.”
Joe Craddock, Arkansas’ offensive coordinator, addressed on Monday if Starkel was so concerned with throwing an interception that maybe he aimed the ball instead of throwing it?
“It could have been a little bit of that,” Craddock said. “I thought he did a nice job of taking care of the ball the other night. We’ve obviously been harping on that with him. We didn’t turn the ball over the entire night, and we’ve been talking about that for a while. As long as we take care of the football, we feel like we have a good chance to win, we had a chance to win in the fourth quarter and didn’t get it done. I thought he did a nice job of doing that.”
Was it more mechanically something he was doing or psychological?
“A lot of the things that Nick missed were the RPO game, some play actions,” Craddock said. “With those, we just got to make sure we buzz our feet, open our hips and open our front foot. A lot of times, Nick was just throwing across his body. That is something that we are consistently working on with him to get better at it. Those are the times that you felt like you maybe threw the ball a little bit behind his receiver when he maybe had them. Nick is very aware of it. We are working it every day. We worked it yesterday. He’ll continue to get better with that.”
With the Hogs being 2-4 on the season, how close is Jefferson to being able to play and get some quarterback reps?
“With KJ, extremely talented,” Morris said. “Has done a great job of working on the scout team. He’s always in our position meetings working hard. We’ll keep bringing him along and see where we’re at with him. Obviously we’d love the opportunity to redshirt him if we could, but we’ll keep bringing him along.”
Craddock also addressed Jefferson and where he’s at as far as possibly doing what he needs to do to get onto the field.
“We’ve challenged him, challenged him actually a couple weeks ago,” Craddock said. “We have a group of young guys that go to power hour, which is kind of their time to get extra lifting and get bigger, stronger, faster. We’ve kind of held KJ from that to make sure he’s learning the offense mentally, is in the meeting rooms, the game plan, learning kind of how our style is and all those things.
“The biggest thing with him is just continuing to do what he’s doing. He’s taken a huge step from the bye week of learning. I’m constantly asking him questions, even though he’s not the starter. Just making sure he’s developing mentally. Any quarterback that comes out of high school, it’s not a knock on his high school, we just do more at this level and more is required of them. He’s learning, he’s doing a good job. He’s just got to continue that. I think if he does continue with the path that he’s on, who knows? We may try to have a little package for him later in the year. That’s definitely something we’ve discussed. We’ve talked to KJ and really challenged him to get better.”
One thing Arkansas wanted to avoid this year was to have the starting quarterback looking over his shoulder afraid of being pulled. Is that now happening with Hicks and Starkel?
“I think early in the year, Ben obviously may have been looking over his shoulder a little bit to Nick,” Craddock said. “Obviously Nick has good fall camp, too. It could have been a little bit of that with Ben. I think Nick, the last couple weeks, I don’t think he’s felt that at all. I would hope not, because we’ve made it pretty clear he’s been our guy the last couple weeks. Obviously he got hurt in the A&M game and Ben came in and relieved him. I would hope not. I hope those guys are continuing to prepare themselves like they’re the starter anyway.
“I think playing quarterback, too, it’s always a little easier to kind of sit back early in a game and see how a team’s playing you. Then You’re not actually in the game with live bullets coming at you. You can kind of sit back and see it like a coach. Ben’s one of those guys that’s been around for so long. He understands defenses and coverages and all those things. He sits back and watches what Nick’s doing and watches how the defense is playing Nick. Then he gets in there and he’s kind of already got an idea of what’s happening whereas Nick’s seeing it for the first time in a game. Obviously, you study film, but he’s seeing it the first time with live bullets. I think Ben’s sitting back and watching helps him a little bit.”
Do you see a scenario where maybe one or the other takes control of the position in the second half of the season?
“I sure hope so,” Craddock said. “I’d love to be in that situation where we’ve got a guy and he’s consistent and comes out hot, and stays hot throughout the game. But the other night, you just felt like it was at the point where we needed a spark and that’s why we decided to go with Ben, to see if he could give us a little bit of a spark, get us a little bit of the hot hand kind of thing like you said. I hope not (to keep switching). I hope we can settle on a guy.
“I’ve got to get that out of those guys a little bit more, being more consistent. We can do a better job of, obviously, scheming. There are lot of good things you see on film. When you get a in a bye week you watch a lot of tape, watch the last couple years of teams, because you just kind of run out things to watch from the season when you’ve only played a couple games. So you go back and you see a lot of things that you like, and I think I’ve got to do a better job of just narrowing it down to a smaller package. Just making sure whatever look they show us, that whoever the quarterback is, they know exactly where the ball needs to go. I think we’ve got to do a better job of that.”
Arkansas will face Auburn at 11 a.m. on Saturday in Reynolds Razorback Stadium.