Kelley’s the Hogs’ starter, but Morris holding his feet to the fire

Cole Kelley / Photo:

What all Razorbacks fans have wanted to know since the end of spring practice, we learned mid day on Monday.

Sophomore Cole Kelley will start at quarterback for Arkansas at 3 p.m. Saturday in the Hogs’ season opener against Eastern Illinois; however, he didn’t exactly get a ringing endorsement by his head coach Chad Morris.

Heck, it could be described as more of a hand-wringing endorsement.

Morris said Monday that Kelley would start, but that he might not be the finisher.

Arkansas’ first-year coach also said that Ty Storey, a junior with little game experience but who was the leader for the job coming out of spring practice, would play, and that one of the freshmen — John Stephen Jones, Connor Noland, and red-shirt Daulton Hyatt — could play.

With the bulk of practice and all of the scrimmage being closed to media and most other observers, it’s hard to say exactly how much separation there was between Storey and Kelley, who started four games last season including 1-point, comeback victories over Ole Miss and Coastal Carolina when Austin Allen was hurt.

As a redshirt freshman, Kelley passed for 1,038 yards and 8 touchdowns against 3 interceptions, while completing 81 of 157 passes for 57.6 percent. He also had two rushing touchdowns.

Storey played in a couple of games last season, but did not attempt a pass.

The difference in Kelley and Storey’s experience is probably key in Kelley getting the nod. His arm strength and 6-7, 258-pound stature no doubt helped, too.

It seemed the contest was headed the other direction after the first scrimmage, but scales seemed to toggle the other way after coaches acknowledged Storey (6-2, 215) threw two interceptions in the second scrimmage.

Ty Storey / Photo:

My guess in the summer was that Kelley would eventually be named the starter, but as close-to-the-vest as Morris held his cards, I was beginning to wonder.

It’s not often a starting quarterback is named in a press conference and also given a public warning.

Morris said that he told Kelley that he did not have a lifetime contract as the starter, and that his job was to get the ball in the end zone.

Both parts of Morris’ statement are obvious, but for him to come out and say it, Morris must really feel the need to hold Kelley’s heels to the fire.

There seems to be quite a bit of trepidation in giving the keys of the offense over to Kelley from the Arkansas brain trust. Neither Morris nor offensive coordinator Joe Craddock said it, but the message being sent is that Kelley won the job by default.

Again, that might not be the case, but it is the perception I’ve gained by listening to what Morris and Craddock have said publicly about the quarterback competition.

Inside closed doors, Morris and Craddock could be building more confidence in the young man, or not. With this being Morris’ first year with the Hogs, we are just learning how he handles personnel. Morris might always keep that type of pressure on his quarterbacks. He would not be the first.

Lou Holtz and Bobby Petrino were very tough on their quarterbacks, tearing them down before building them up.

Danny Ford seemingly played mind games with Barry Lunney Jr. It was clear from practice, Lunney was the better option at quarterback in 1995, and yet Ford started Robert Reed in the opener against SMU. Lunney eventually quarterbacked Arkansas to its first SEC West title that season, but the Hogs lost that opener to the Mustangs.

Houston Nutt attempted to hold Matt Jones in check by playing Ryan Sorahan at QB some in 2003, but it always fell to Jones to pull or attempt to pull the Hogs’ fat out of the fire.

Some or none of that might be applicable in this situation.

Kelley showed some immaturity on the field and and off as a freshman. Some have seen his exuberance on the field as more of a detriment than an encouragement to his teammates, and his DUI arrest the night after a 33-10 loss to LSU left him suspended for the Mississippi State game.

Some have oddly wondered why Morris hasn’t punished Kelley for his arrest even though the former staff already took action. That said, Kelley’s arrest is part of his history. It no doubt has factored into the quarterback competition. A quarterback needs to be a leader, and that was not a sign of leadership.

More than a few Hog fans and media members have speculated that the quarterback who starts the first game won’t necessarily be taking starting snaps at the end of the season.

Noland and Jones had outstanding prep careers as did Hyatt, who looked nifty working against the third-team defense in the spring game. Young quarterbacks are always of interest when fans aren’t content with the current quarterback situation.

It would be best for the Razorbacks if Kelley takes the reins on Saturday and never looks back, but based on everything we’ve heard (not seen) the quarterback competition is still on until Kelley or one of the other four establishes in a game that he can consistently lead the Hogs to the end zone against quality competition.

Nothing can be taken for granted in Arkansas’ first three games against Eastern Illinois, Colorado State, and North Texas, but those three exhibition-type games should give Morris and his staff the opportunity to play a lot of Razorbacks and perhaps even experiment during the first fourth of the schedule.

While quarterback has been the chief concern among fans, starting redshirt freshmen at guard and tackle is probably the greatest worry for the offensive coaches.

The Hogs will begin sorting at the answers at the newly renovated Reynolds Razorback Stadium at 3 p.m. Saturday. Fans who haven’t yet been able to see the improvements will likely be surprised and impressed.

Fans may not be proud of the on-the-field legacy of former athletics director Jeff Long, but he certainly left a lasting mark in the north end zone. There are bigger stadiums in the SEC, but none nicer.