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Hatcher responding to challenge

August 29, 2014

Arkansas Razorbacks senior receiver Keon Hatcher, 4, gets tackled by an Auburn defender last season. Hatcher is the Hogs’ most experienced returning receiver. GARETH PATTERSON/Special to The Saline Courier

FAYETTEVILLE - The  Razorbacks so need Keon Hatcher in top receiver form that Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema demoted him during preseason drills. 

The junior from Owasso, Okla., is Arkansas’ leading returning wide receiver from 2013 catching 27 passes for 346 yards and two touchdowns and running 11 flanker reverses for 140 yards. No single Razorbacks wide receiver combines all that Hatcher sports in size (6-2, 210), speed, stats and experience.

Despite Hatcher’s deeds, the Hogs wallowed 3-9 last year, consecutively losing their last nine including all eight Southeastern Conference games.

While no one Hog should hog all blame for Arkansas’ struggles last season, some Hatcher muffs played a part, particularly during 30-10 and 52-0 SEC losses at Florida and at Alabama.

“The Florida game he had a couple of drops and he fumbled that ball against Alabama on the kickoff,” receivers coach Michael Smith said after the first August preseason practices. “That set him back a little bit but he has bounced back and had a great summer, and is doing some really good things.”

Bielema, Smith and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney accelerated the praise.  Then they reported after a closed practice that  Hatcher’s ghost of inconsistent past haunted him again.

“We saw some things at a practice that Coach was upset with,” Smith said.   “Keon put a ball on the ground that we weren’t used to seeing all through camp.  We have been harping on him about the consistency and so has Coach and Coach Chaney.”

It was just one practice, but Bielema asserted he told Chaney and Smith, and obviously Hatcher, too,  he wanted four receivers alternating first team during the first big scrimmage and Hatcher not among them.

On the second team, Hatcher responded catching 3 passes for 65 scrimmage yards and dominated the next couple of practices.

“It was a motivator,” Hatcher said.  “But it really doesn’t matter whether I am with the twos or the ones.  If I continue to work hard and get better that’s all that matters.”

Hatcher’s response sure mattered to Bielema. 

“We as a coaching staff, me in particular, challenged him,” Bielema said. “And he’s been off the charts since that point. I’m so excited to see that kid because he is everything you want.”

Bielema wants a big, consistent wideout big time. The absence of a consistent one last year, coupled with a porous defense and a quarterback, Brandon Allen, (healthy now) trying to play through a separated throwing shoulder derailed the 2013 Razorbacks. They floundered even with three great running backs, Alex Collins, the 2013 SEC Freshman of the Year, Jonathan Williams and Korliss Marshall, all returning, as does Hunter Henry, the 2013 second-team All-SEC tight end.

The  Arkansas pieces and the offensive line blocking for them all seem a better fit this second Bielema season. Especially if flankers Hatcher and Drew Morgan, the sophomore who caught 6 passes for 117 yards running first team in the first scrimmage, continue catching Allen’s offerings into and through Saturday’s season opener in Auburn, Ala., against the reigning SEC champion Auburn Tigers.

Given their preseason success, either Hatcher or Morgan could play some split end against Auburn so both can play simultaneously, though Smith also has touted senior first-team split end Demetrius Wilson.

“We want our best players on the field at all times,” Smith said. “And if they can continue to perform the way they’ve been performing, it would be a travesty on my part to have one of them sitting on the bench when they can both be on the field at the same time.”

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