FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas sophomore Eric Hawkins provided the understatement of the summer Tuesday, when asked about the rash of injuries and absences at the wide receiver position and what it had meant for the group.
“Camp got a little hard,” Hawkins admitted.
Senior Demetrius Wilson went down for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in one of his knees. D’Arthur Cowan was lost for six to eight weeks a few practices later after suffering a broken bone in his left foot. It followed Mekale McKay’s decision to transfer to Cincinnati before preseason practice even began.
The wealth of activity has left Arkansas with just six scholarship receivers available for the season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette on Saturday. Not all of them have been completely healthy this month, either. Keon Hatcher and Javontee Herndon both missed portions of the preseason because of minor injuries.
But none of the problems — or the extra work — has diminished the group’s optimism as the Razorbacks prepare to play Louisiana-Lafayette at 3 p.m. Saturday.
“We’re going to be fine,” Arkansas receivers coach Michael Smith said. “These guys are hungry. They’re anxious to get this opportunity to play. It’s an opportunity for them to show what they’ve learned and what they’re capable of doing.”
What will that mean for a receiver in an offense trying to shift its identity to a physical, run-first approach under coach Bret Bielema? Arkansas’ plan of attack remains a curiosity because of closed preseason practices. But there’s no doubt what Bielema, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and players have said publicly is a change from when the Hogs seemingly were built around quarterback and receivers.
The Razorbacks still want to produce a balanced attack this season, though, and will need production from its receiving corps to make it happen. Senior Javontee Herndon is confident the group will deliver despite the camp challenges.
“It’s been rough,” Herndon said. “We lost a couple of guys. But our coach tells us every day another solider down keep fighting.”
Herndon, Hatcher and Hawkins join senior Julian Horton and true freshmen Drew Morgan and Melvinson Hartfield as Arkansas’ scholarship receivers for the opener.
Three of them — Hawkins, Morgan and Hartfield — will be making their Arkansas debuts Saturday. Morgan said last week he’s ready after a month of practices, which left he and fellow freshman Hartfield getting much more work than expected.
“We’ve definitely had some injuries,” Morgan said. “But we’ve had some really talented players at the position that can go right now. We’re going to throw them in. … When one guy goes down a younger guy has to step up and make a play.”
Bielema said the two freshmen have used the opportunity to make an impression in a short amount of time. Hartfield didn’t even arrive until the second week of preseason practice because he was waiting for NCAA clearance.
“Melvinson is very, very fast,” Bielema said. “That’s not just a myth. … The kids recognize it. He catches the ball very efficiently. He made an over-the-shoulder catch two days ago that was big-time. I think Drew Morgan, the more things he can do, he gets more and more comfortable. The game got big on him there for about a week, I think, but now he’s kind of settled back into his groove and is fun to watch.”
They’re the new faces in a group whose numbers have dwindled over the past several years. Arkansas was once stocked at the position with record setters like Jarius Wright, Greg Childs, Joe Adams and Cobi Hamilton leading the way. But Petrino’s last few classes included receivers no longer with the program.
A few examples: McKay and Keante Minor were released from their scholarships by Bielema. John L. Smith dismissed Marquel Wade and Maudrecus Humphrey (now at Alabama-Birmingham) after arrests. Quinta Funderburk (now at Syracuse) and Kane Whitehurst (now at South Carolina) have transferred elsewhere.
Losing Wilson in camp to injury was a big blow for the current group. Wilson — who does have a redshirt year available and can return in 2014 — was expected to be one of the leaders of the receiving corps this season. Cowan also had shown potential for a breakout year as well after turning in a productive start to fall camp.
The absences forced Arkansas to adjust its practice schedule to account for the thinning numbers among the group. Getting receivers extra repetitions wasn’t a bad thing. But the potential of running them into the ground could’ve been disastrous.
“We’re short, so the tempo of the practice tends to pick up because of our numbers,” Hawkins said. “People are getting more reps, getting them back to back. Sometimes you don’t get out. You’ve just got to keep going. You’ve got to fight through it.”
Arkansas’ receivers accomplished it through preseason camp.
Now they’re ready to be awarded with the season opener.
“I’m not showing it right now, but I’m excited,” said Herndon, who wasn’t sporting a smile during Tuesday’s interviews. “Camp’s finally over. It’s game week. It’s my last opening week. It’s time to have some fun and show out.”