Keon Hatcher watched good friend Jonathan Williams get hurt his senior year and then go pro. It weighed on him. Hatcher struggled in the spring. Now, he has his act together and helps lead perhaps the SEC's best wideout unit.
FAYETTEVILLE - Keon Hatcher has matching tattoos on the inside of each of his upper arms. His left biceps and triceps read "Truly." On the right, "Blessed." When it comes to Hatcher's last couple months of football, compared to where he was months before, the message makes all the sense in the world.
Hatcher isn't some 24-year-old puttering his way through with nine hours a semester, dropping a class here or there. Yes, he is a fifth-year senior at Arkansas. But he has goals and an aim. The best wide receiver on the team going into 2015, Hatcher looked the part for the 1 1/2 games he played.
Then he broke his foot in the late stages of Arkansas' loss to Toledo. The team was spiraling a week later with another loss to Texas Tech. Hatcher could only watch. Shortly after that, he could only watch again as Drew Morgan, in Hatcher's stead, turned into the Southeastern Conference's leading receiver in touchdowns. As Hatcher started his second chance this past spring, he found himself in Drew Bledsoe-to-Tom Brady territory.
The injury, the lost job, it weighed on him, coach Bret Bielema said. His spring was OK, a little disappointing, Bielema said. Up and down. A loaded Arkansas wide receiving corps meant reps would be split lots of ways - a far cry from a year before when Hatcher was the clear No. 1. Between that and everything else, things were difficult.
But something flicked in the summertime. Part of it, Hatcher said, was a realization. This is it. He saw one of his best friends - Jonathan Williams - miss last year with a broken foot, too. He could have returned for another senior season, like Hatcher. He didn't. He went to the NFL, knowing he'd be a draft selection. Hatcher didn't have that luxury. He was a toss-up to be picked had he come out. A toss-up, at best.
So most days since fall camp began a couple weeks ago, Hatcher has been, at worst, the second best receiver on the field. He isn't Morgan's back-up. They're splitting time. And now, with Dominique Reed (ankle sprain) out of the picture on the opposite side for a week, Hatcher can slide over to that side and get more opportunities.
After the ultimate was that was most of the last calendar year, he's ready for it.
"We're rocking and ready. We're ready to go," Hatcher said. "We're ready for Dominique to get back as soon as we can. But we've got to go. We've got to keep moving forward."
He was one of only a few seniors on the team last year. Now there are pushing 25, most of whom are regulars. Even in the receiving corps, four of the top five are in their final year of eligibility.
That's part of what makes them one of the most vaunted groups in the SEC, though. Hatcher had 13 catches for almost 200 yards and two touchdowns when he was hurt, easily the best marks on the team. As a junior, he was the team leader in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. Throw in Morgan, a healthy Reed and understudy Cody Hollister and the combination of experience and talent is matched only by Texas A&M in the league.
Question is whether there are enough passes thrown to satiate all their individual desires. Wide receivers coach Michael Smith laughed when asked if he thought enough passes would be thrown.
"I don't ever think you convince a wide receiver there are enough balls to go around, Smith said.
As for where Hatcher fits in the mold - No. 1, opposite starter, back-up, slot - it's probably going to be a lot like the rest of the offense outside Austin Allen and Jeremy Sprinkle: changing by the scenario. And that's fine with Hatcher. So long as he gets a full, healthy shot at it.
"It's been a big adjustment, but you've got to take the punches and roll with them," he said. "I'm glad to be back. I'm ready to lead this team a great year and see how it goes."
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