By Otis Kirk
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas is set to play its eighth game of the season and they don’t know who will start at quarterback.
The issue has been neither Nick Starkel or Ben Hicks have been consistent enough to make Chad Morris comfortable saying he is the starter. Starkel has four starts and Hicks three to this point.
“Well, first of all the situation this week, Ben got banged up a little bit this past week,” Morris said. “We’ll see how things are on Tuesday with him. They’ll both be out there. We’ll just go from there.
“As far as the process through the course of the week, at the end of the week it was we knew had to, we felt a little more confident in the fact of getting us into the right checks with their pressures. I think you saw that. We actually scored on one of the checks. The other one we hit Rakeem (Boyd) right down the middle. We just felt like Ben had a little better grasp of it. And so that was the final decision in it.”
Hicks started the first two games of the season, but was replaced at halftime of the Ole Miss game. Starkel then started the next game, Colorado State, and it appeared the Hogs had their quarterback. But then he threw five interceptions against San Jose State.
Starkel was injured in the Texas A&M game and replaced by Hicks who almost led the team to victory. Starkel was able to play against Kentucky, but struggled once again. He was replaced by Hicks. Hicks then started and went the distance against Auburn.
Joe Craddock, Arkansas’ offensive coordinator, stopped short of saying if Hicks, who had ice on his left shoulder Saturday, is healthy he will start.
“That’s something we’ll reevaluate at practice and see how he feels,” Craddock said. “He could be healthy and still not be 100 percent. So that’s just something we’ll have to see how he’s doing.”
What did you think of Hicks’ performance against Auburn?
“I thought he did what he could at times,” Craddock said. “A lot of times it was hard for him to even set his feet. I thought he did a nice job of stepping up in the pocket at times. We saw him step up in the pocket above pressure that he got slid and picked up and stepped up in the pocket and hit C.J. (O’Grady) for a touchdown. There were other times he would step up in the pocket and be getting hit right as he was throwing. So with all that being said I thought he played about as good as he could considering the circumstances.
“I even asked him after the game how he felt. He said he felt like he had been hit by a car. So he showed a lot of guts and toughness staying in the pocket. He stared down the barrel and stayed in there the whole time and stayed in the pocket and guys are blitzing at you and you know they are coming and he stood in there nice and tried to deliver the ball under pressure. So we will reevaluate how he is feeling [today] at practice.”
Many were surprised when Morris didn’t put John Stephen Jones into the game in the fourth quarter on Saturday. Auburn had the win secured and Hicks had taken a beating during the game.
“I didn’t want to put them in a situation like that, that late in the game,” Morris said. “I just didn’t. It wasn’t the fair time to do that. I think there is a time to do that. I think it’s putting a package together to.
“We’ve got to be effective in running the football from a quarterback situation. That’s… Every part of our offense, when we’ve excelled at a very high level, our quarterback has been a big part of our run game. So we’ve got to do a good job of developing the packages to make that happen. We worked a little bit with Treylon Burks last week, or the last couple weeks, trying to create some type of run from the quarterback position and we’ll continue to work that.”
Arkansas also has true freshman KJ Jefferson who hasn’t played this season. One would suspect the coaching staff will try to preserve his redshirt year. It would be a surprise though if Jefferson didn’t play in November. The NCAA allows a player to participate in four games and still retain his redshirt year. Arkansas has four games in November.
Morris was also asked if they have to call different games depending on if the quarterback is Starkel or Hicks?
“At that position, you look for consistency,” Morris said. “I think we all know, we’ve seen Nick and what Nick brings to the table. He’s got the size and he’s got the arm strength and the quick release. The one thing, you go back to the start of camp, and the reason why Ben won the job it was just the familiarity with the offense and understanding exactly what was asked of him and get us into the right checks if we need to.
“Pass protection is a big deal in this offense, and being able to get your protection aligned right according to the looks. And so, that was the one thing that took Ben over the top when we named the starter to start the year out with. I think when you look at it, I’ve thought that Ben threw some really good balls the other night, and I thought that he was very tough. He played with grit, he plays with a lot of confidence. Do you call a game different with each one of them in there? At this stage we’re just trying to be as consistent as we can and be able to run the football and get our RPOs working like we want them to get to.”
Craddock also addressed the difference in calling plays or Hicks or Starkel.
“I think both guys have their set strengths and set weaknesses,” Craddock said. “One of them runs better than the other and one of them obviously has the stronger arm than the other. One of them has been in the system a little longer than the other, so you can do a little bit more.
“That’s what last week we thought, from all the pressures that Auburn had shown on film and the different things they were doing, I think you saw Ben was able to understand what was coming and get his protection slid the right way in those pressure packages. Not just base defense I’m talking, but I’m talking more so their third-down sub-packages that Ben was able to recognize and get himself protected. So, each one has their set deals, and you have to play off their strengths.”