FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas wide receiver Keon Hatcher knows how much criticism quarterback Brandon Allen shouldered throughout the 2013 season.
He heard it. He felt it. And since the junior feels equally responsible for Arkansas’ struggles in the passing game last season, Hatcher takes it personally.
"That’s my boy," Hatcher said Sunday. "I don’t like to see that stuff about my quarterback. But we can blow it off because that was then. This is now. We continue to work hard and I feel like we’ve got some stuff in store for people."
It’s the attitude Arkansas’ retooled receiving corps has adopted as the Razorbacks try to fix a passing offense that was one of the Southeastern Conference’s worst last season. While quarterback play had a big hand in the 3-9 results, Arkansas’ struggles out wide contributed to the problem with the passing attack as well.
Arkansas wide receivers coach Michael Smith said the problems ultimately fall on his shoulders. But Smith and his new-look group plan to make up for it this season.
"We know where we need to go, but we can’t forget where we came from," Smith said. "We’ve got a lot of pressure on us, but it’s pressure that I’m excited about because I think all the guys in the room, including myself, we’re going to step up to that challenge and put a tremendous product on the field."
The amount of improvement will play a pivotal part in the passing game’s recovery this season. Arkansas never really had a big-play threats or dependable receivers in a season better defined by dropped passes, blocking woes and other issues.
Seniors Javontee Herndon and Julian Horton are in NFL camps this summer, while D’Arthur Cowan was dismissed earlier this summer. It has left Hatcher (27 catches, 346 yards) and Eric Hawkins (9 catches, 32 yards) as the only receivers who caught passes for the Razorbacks last season. Senior Demetrius Wilson, who caught nine passes in 2012, also returns after missing 2013 with a knee injury.
But the inexperience doesn’t bother the Razorbacks. Instead, they see promise in a crew the includes sophomore Drew Morgan, redshirt freshman Damon Mitchell and newcomers Cody Hollister, Jared Cornelius, Kendrick Edwards and Jojo Robinson.
"We’ve got guys that are ready to step in and make plays," Allen said.
Morgan has been the biggest surprise after the early stages of preseason camp.
The Greenwood native played in 10 games last season, but never caught a pass. He worked on his speed, route running and knowledge of the system in the offseason, then Morgan showed how much it helped by catching a team-high six passes for 117 yards and 2 touchdowns in last week’s scrimmage.
"Drew’s never lacked confidence," Arkansas offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said. "He knows what he’s doing now. You can see in his route running, some more creativity. I think he was a little — young kids are a little shy about trying because they’re scared we’re going to yell at them or whatever. He’s playing football right now. What made Greenwood good and what made Drew good was he just went out and played. And that’s what he’s doing now. It’s like backyard ball."
Hatcher has shown growth as well after a sophomore season that was marred by ball security issues. The leader of the group admitted his confidence was shaken because of the mistakes last fall, but feels much more comfortable in his role now.
"We put in so much time together with the quarterbacks, getting everything right and just gaining that confidence," Hatcher said. "The confidence is going to come with knowing what you’re doing. And just going out there and do what you do. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t know how to play ball. So just go out there, be comfortable, get that confidence back and just go make plays."
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema placed Hatcher in the group of five receivers the Razorbacks trusted after one week of practice. He joined Morgan, Wilson, Hollister and Cornelius. Smith said one more — the 6-foot-6 Edwards — has made strides as well and could help the Hogs because of his height and athleticism.
But there’s potential from others as well. Hawkins, who ran track last spring, may be Arkansas’ fastest receiver. Mitchell has shown potential after moving over from quarterback late last spring. Robinson’s speed and agility could prove helpful, too.
The inexperienced group knows it will have plenty to prove once the season begins. But Arkansas is confident its wide receiving corps will step into the opener at Auburn equipped with more talent, depth and ability to help its quarterback.
"They’ll bring it up about last year just to have a little chip on our shoulders," Hollister said. "But I know we’re going uphill. I know we’re already better than what they say we were last year. I mean, that’s why I came here – to improve our receiving corps and I feel like we’ve already gotten better.
"I’m just excited for the season to where we can actually start progressing."
A Closer Look At … WIDE RECEIVERS
Best of the Bunch: Keon Hatcher — The junior was plagued by drops and fumbles last season, but has the potential to become Arkansas’ go-to guy in 2014. If the first scrimmage is any indication, Arkansas’ top returning receiver will have to fight off sophomore Drew Morgan to carry the title as best of the bunch.
Watch Out For: Kendrick Edwards — There’s a lot of unknown in the receiving corps, but the freshman from South Florida carries the biggest intrigue. The obvious reason is his 6-foot-6 frame. Edwards could give Arkansas a legitimate redzone threat, which is something it sorely lacked last season.
Biggest Question: Will the group make big plays? Arkansas’ passing attack didn’t have much pop last season as the Razorbacks struggled to find receivers who could make big plays downfield. Arkansas showed some improvement in its first scrimmage with three players — Hatcher, Morgan and Mitchell — hauling in deep-ball receptions of 40 yards or more. More of it is vital for an offense that aims to damage defenses with its run game and play-action passing.
Projected Starters: Keon Hatcher, Jr., (27 catches, 346 yards, 2 touchdowns in 2013), Drew Morgan, So., (No receptions in 10 games); Demetrius Wilson, Sr., (Redshirted after suffering preseason knee injury).
Other Contributors: Cody Hollister, So.; Jared Cornelius, Fr., Eric Hawkins, So.; Damon Mitchell, RS-Fr.; Kendrick Edwards, Fr.; Jojo Robinson, Fr.
That Figures: 30 — The 2013 receptions by members of Arkansas’ 2014 receiving corps. Hatcher caught 27 passes, while Hawkins had three. The other seven receivers included one who didn’t catch a pass in 2013 (Morgan), one who played another position (Mitchell), one coming off an injury (Wilson) and four preparing first season with the program (Cornelius, Hollister, Edwards and Robinson).
Quotable: "You always look at stats at the end of year, and if you went by stats, yes, it was the waste of a year. But I think it also put him in position to where he is right now. He’s been out there. He’s played in SEC football games. So it’s not going to be a shock like it was last year. From that standpoint, I’m happy he played. From a selfish standpoint for the kid, yes, I wish he would have redshirted." — Smith on Morgan, who played in 10 games but did not catch any passes in 2013.