FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas had three different quarterbacks start games in 2018, but none of those are still with the team.
Ty Storey and Cole Kelley transferred following the season while Connor Noland opted to concentrate solely on baseball.
John Stephen Jones played in three games and preserved his redshirt. He is back. The other quarterback who played in one game, Daulton Hyatt, is now at wide receiver. Walk on Jack Lindsey was a holder for field goals and point after touchdowns, but didn’t play any quarterback in a game. He also returns.
Enter senior Ben Hicks, junior Nick Starkel and true freshman KJ Jefferson. Hicks is a grad transfer from SMU while Starkel came over from Texas A&M.
The expectation is either Hicks or Starkel will start for Arkansas this year, but Joe Craddock, the offensive coordinator, isn’t read to narrow it down just yet.
“I hope it comes down between all of them,” Craddock said. “It means I’ve done a good job as a coach to develop a young guy in KJ and continue to develop John Stephen. It’s an open race. You’ve got to go out and prove it on the field.”
Hicks has an advantage in that he played for Chad Morris three years at SMU. Starkel has a strong arm and had some very good games with the Aggies. Hicks also was available during the spring giving him 15 additional practices with the Hogs while Starkel was finishing up academic work in College Station.
All of the quarterbacks have put in the work this summer with strength and conditioning coach Tru Carroll.
“My goal is just keep ‘em healthy and let ‘em battle it out in camp,” Carroll said. “Honestly, they’ve reached that, because like I said before, all of them have been vocal this summer. All of them have been vocal, really, since January.
“That’s one position group that I think has grown the most since this time last year. Because you look up and every time we come in on Saturdays or off days, those quarterbacks get guys together. They’re throwing, they’re catching, they’re running routes. That wasn’t the case last year. You almost have to run them out of the facility at times, just because you don’t want them to overwork themselves. It’s really a tribute to the leadership that those guys have taken on in their quarterback back room.”
Morris feels there will be some good competition at quarterback in the coming weeks prior to the season opener.
“We’re excited about our quarterback battle that we have with the addition of Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel and the ability to bring Ben in in January and watch the development of John Stephen Jones through the spring and the valuable reps that he got, it will be an interesting battle as we go into fall camp,” Morris said.
Any particular date you have in mind to name a starter?
“I don’t have a date set,” Morris said. “This is the actual date because I don’t know how camp is going to go. I know we’re running somebody out there on that first game. I do know that. I don’t want that to be — I would like for it not to be just — that’s the first time everybody knows it, but we’ll see. The sooner, the better because I want our team to rally around that guy and who those guys — that guy is going to be. But I also know that, you know, it’s going to have to work itself out.
“They’ve had a tremendous summer. The leadership from all of that group has definitely impacted our program and talking to our defensive guys in particular, because I always ask them about what does it look like from that side of the ball. And talking about the leadership of Ben, the leadership of Nick. Nick played in this league. Nick’s won in this league. And he understands what this league is about. So we got a battle going.”
Craddock talked about what he has seen from Starkel.
“I’ve seen that Nick is a very smart guy,” Craddock said. “He hasn’t come in and really tried to beat his chest or speak loudly in terms of trying to win the team over. I think he’s done it the right way. I think you saw Ben do that a lot in January and February. Then as the spring went he was more vocal and those kind of things. He’s very intelligent. Just getting around him and talking some offense in our meetings this summer, he’s definitely been working at it and trying to pick it up as fast as he can. Real excited to see where he is in fall camp as well.
“I haven’t gotten to see him throw much, but just hearing different things from the receivers, they come and say stuff like, ‘Hey coach, he’s got a strong arm. Coach he can get the ball out.’ It’ll be interesting to see how it is as coaches once we get out there and start working with them as well and seeing how the whole thing unfolds.”
While the fit with Hicks is obvious considering he played for this staff for three years with the Mustangs. How does Starkel fit in with this offense?
“It’s very similar,” Craddock said. “I went back and watched four or five of his games that he’s played in and a lot of it has been very, very similar. That’s what has enabled him to pick up the offense fairly quickly. I think a lot of it is the same as what he’s done over the year.”
Jefferson has been on campus for a few weeks now. How has he adjusted to college football since he’s the only true freshman among the group?
“Yeah, he’s had to really grow up,” Craddock said. “The workouts and everything have been a little bit different for him. That usually happens with a lot of guys when they come to college. When I went to college it was so much different. And you’ve got to just learn to adapt and raise your level of intensity up even more than in high school. It’s been a little bit of an adjustment for him, but I think he’s in a good place and ready to get started.”
Since Arkansas has the two older transfer quarterbacks and then Jones returning from last season, does Jefferson redshirt?
“It all depends on how he does in fall camp,” Craddock said. “This whole thing is wide open. If he comes out and it’s a no brainier he’s got to start for us, then he’ll start game 1. It’s just a matter of how much he can remember and how much he can execute at a high level that we need him to win. If he’s doing those things and we feel comfortable putting him in the game, we could put him in four games and see where that goes.”
Arkansas will practice on Friday night at 6:15 p.m. They open the season on Saturday, Aug. 31, in Reynolds Razorback Stadium against Portland State at 3 p.m. The game will be televised on the SEC Network.