FAYETTEVILLE — Zack Hocker realizes the irony of his final preseason camp.
The Russellville native said it seems like yesterday former coach Bobby Petrino brought him to Arkansas to compete for the punting job as a freshman. Hocker couldn’t beat Dylan Breeding for the job in 2009, but managed to find his way on the field elsewhere by becoming Arkansas’ place kicker that season.
Now, the senior is getting the chance to "go back to the original reason I was brought in here" this preseason: Punting. And he wants make the most it.
"I’m going to treat it like I’m expected to be called on," Hocker said. "If I’m put in a situation and they say ‘Zach, here it is. Here’s all three,’ I’ve been ready for that moment ever since Dylan graduated last year."
Hocker, who will continue his place kicking and kickoff duties, is working to add punting to his resume as he prepares for 2013. Hocker is competing with signee Sam Irwin-Hill for the punting job and appears to have a leg up on his competitor after impressing the coaches in practices and scrimmages so far.
Locking up the spot would signify a rare feat for Hocker and create a unique situation for Arkansas’ staff. Coach Bret Bielema and special teams coordinator Charlie Partridge said they’ve never had one player handle all three kicking duties.
But they’re not concerned about it stretching Hocker too thin in his final season.
"I wouldn’t if we handle it the right way," Bielema said. "I think I’ve never had that before. I’ve researched to two head coaches that I competed against that I knew they had a guy that did all three. … Zach has got a very, very strong leg and when he hits it, he’s stroking that baby pretty good. I think he’s comfortable with his holder, his snapper. He’s going to bring a lot of weapons to the table that I think are unique."
Hocker showed some of his potential during Arkansas’ first open scrimmage.
He received one of the biggest applauses of the day before the scrimmage even began, booming a punt well over 50 yards during a special teams portion of the practice. Hocker did even better with his regular duties a little later, going 2-for-2 on field goals. It included a 57-yard field goal that earned another ovation.
"Right now Zach is performing at a high level in all three areas," Partridge said. "He’s punting the ball well. He’s kicking off well and he’s hitting field goals well. If he stays on that path, we’ve got to be really smart about his training regimen. … We have to be really careful and make sure his leg is the same in October as it is now."
It’s not a simple task. But Arkansas has formulated a plan it hopes will ensure Hocker doesn’t wear down if called upon to handle all three duties this season.
Arkansas specialists aren’t asked to task their legs during the week. Bielema said they only kick four days a week during fall camp, taking Wednesday, Friday and Sunday off. It will be a similar schedule when the season begins, basically taking Sunday, Monday and Friday off to make sure they recover and are fresh for games.
Hocker said it is helping so far as Arkansas moves to the midway point of camp.
"A lot of coaches may know special teams schemes and stuff, but as far as a specialist unit goes, they’re very experienced in that," Hocker said of Bielema and Partridge. "Coach B completely understands when we’re called upon to perform at our peak, the only way we’re going to do that is if we have a couple days throughout the week to recover and get our legs back underneath us. He’s just been really awesome throughout this whole training process as far as keeping our legs underneath us."
It’s important to Hocker who also is on a mission to put 2012 in the past.
The place kicker went 37 of 46 (80.4 percent) on field goal attempts his first two seasons on campus. But Hocker was a puzzling 11 of 18 (61.1 percent) in 2012.
Hocker chalked the problems up to a lack of concentration in a year swirling with problems for the program. He wasn’t alone in turning in a disappointing season and intends to make amends this fall.
"The confidence going into this season is incredible," said Hocker, who is working with long snapper Alan D’Appollonio for the third straight year and holder Matt Emrich for the first time. "I’m ready to get the first game behind us and get going."
The first preseason scrimmage was a sign Hocker is at least off to a good start.
Arkansas still hasn’t finalized its punting plan for 2013. But Bielema and Partridge are confident Hocker can handle the responsibility if needed.
"I don’t know if there’s a guy that’s more engaged with what we’re doing around here than Zach Hocker," Bielema said.
A Closer Look At … SPECIAL TEAMS
Best of the Bunch: PK/P Zach Hocker — The senior had a down year by his standards in 2012, making just 11 of 18 field goals. But he remains one of the SEC’s most talented specialists. Hocker may be a triple threat as well, getting a chance to add punting duties to his busy resume in addition to place kicking and kickoffs.
Watch Out For: PR Nate Holmes — The position remains open, but Holmes is a leading candidate to return punts this season. If so, the sophomore has the speed, agility and explosiveness to be a dangerous return man. Arkansas just has to find a way to make sure Holmes – who has muffed punts – holds onto the football.
Biggest Strength: Hocker may not have been a sure thing last season, but the Razorbacks are confident he’ll continue to deliver in 2013. The senior enters his final season with a chance to break the school mark for career field goals (12 shy of Todd Wright’s record of 60) to go along with his records for PATs made (143) and kick scoring (287 points). Oh yeah, Hocker is on track to punt as well.
Biggest Question: Will the big plays return? Arkansas was impressive on special teams in 2011, which was a big reason for its 11-2 finish. But every unit struggled last season and played a part on the program’s downfall. Arkansas must find ways to make big plays again on special teams if it has any hope of reaching a bowl game.
Projected Starters: PK – Zach Hocker, Sr., (11 of 18 on FG attempts in 2012); P – Zach Hocker, Sr., (Stats N/A); H – Matt Emrich, RS-Fr. (Preparing for first season as holder); LS – Alan D’Appolonio (Entering third season as long snapper); KR – D’Arthur Cowan, So., (Averaged 17.6 yards on 10 returns in 2012); PR – Nate Holmes, So., (Averaged 6.4 yards on 11 returns in 2012)
That Figures: 42 — Arkansas’ longest return – kick or punt – in 2012. The struggles came one season after the Razorbacks scored six touchdowns on returns that spanned 50 yards or more in 2011. The lack of explosiveness on special teams was one of the many reasons Arkansas limped to a 4-8 record.
Quotable: "He’s definitely got great leg speed. He’s got great power. What he’s going through the growing pains of now is the consistency with all these eyes on him. He’s never had cameras around him that are filming everything. He’s never had coaches right there, players right there. So he’s just going through the normal growing pains of coming into a program like this. But he is getting better every day." — Partridge on Sam Irwin-Hill, who is competing with Hocker for the punting job.