FAYETTEVILLE — It’s a fun game for college fan bases and media alike across the country.
The aim is to correctly predict during training camp which player will lead a team in receptions.
For the current Arkansas Razorbacks, tight end Cheyenne O’Grady looks like a good bet this fall. However, what if the game is limited to University of Arkansas players listed on the roster as wide receivers? Then it becomes a more interesting challenge.
Could the Hogs’ top pass catcher be a veteran like fifth-year senior Deon Stewart, juniors Jordan Jones and De’Vion Warren, or sophomore Koilan Jackson?
How about one of the big crop of four-star freshmen: Trey Knox, Treylon Burks, Shamar Nash or T.Q. Jackson?
There are wild-card possibilities as well, like transfer Kendall Catalon, who caught a team-high 28 passes for Southern University last year.
The Razorbacks in the second year of Chad Morris’ offense need to see the receiving numbers of their wideouts rising.
The Hogs’ top pass catcher among wideouts, La’Michael Pettway, had 30 last season to tie O’Grady for the team lead. But Pettway transferred to Iowa State shortly after Jonathan Nance, Arkansas’ leading receiver from 2017, announced his intention to transfer to Missouri.
The Razorbacks’ top three wideouts — Pettway, Stewart (22 catches, 178 yards) and sophomore Mike Woods (18-206, 1 TD) — combined for 70 receptions last year, the second fewest in the SEC West and far behind the most prolific passing offenses in the division. As a comparison, Ole Miss’ top three wide receivers combined for 186 catches, followed by Alabama (151), Auburn (130), Texas A&M (110), LSU (100), Arkansas and Mississippi State (64).
The Razorbacks understand they have to be more dangerous on the flanks, and that begins by winning more man-to-man battles, creating more separation and being more succinctly on page with the quarterbacks.
“All of us are more comfortable because last year was our first year with this offense,” Stewart said.
“We have a sense of urgency,” Warren said. “You get to a point where you have something to prove, and people underestimate you as one of the least receiving corps in the SEC. It drives you. It makes you strive for success.
“We are a lot better as a group collectively. It’s been good, but we’ve got to take more steps forward. That’s the thing, we’ve got to keep pushing each day.”
Woods said the receivers have to make a difference.
“We’re not satisfied with just being here,” he said. “People would tell me, ‘You’re a freshman and you started in the SEC,’ and I honestly don’t care. I didn’t have a good year. I don’t classify that as a good year, I don’t care if I was a freshman. I don’t care if I was a senior.
“I’ve just got that fuel inside of me. I know what I can do. I’ve just got to go out there and show it.”
The same could be said for most of the guys competing for reps in the receiving room.
“We’re in a better place,” said Jones, who had 17 catches for 191 yards and a touchdown last year. “We’ve got a lot of guys, a lot of talented guys.
“I’m a lot more comfortable in the offense. I know what I’m doing. I line up quicker. That will take a lot of pressure off of me and a lot of pressure off the other guys, too.”
Jackson missed his true freshman season with a knee injury in 2017 and contributed sparingly last season, so he’s looking for more from himself and what he feels is a deeper unit.
“We’re definitely talented,” Jackson said. “We all worked this offseason to get faster, stronger, all that stuff, so we’re basically better as a whole group.”
The arrival of the celebrated freshman class has heightened the level of competition in the room. Burks already has made a couple of highlight-reel catches during camp, and Knox has drawn praise from teammates since his arrival.
“The young guys came in and definitely gave us an extra push,” Woods said.
Receivers coach Justin Stepp spoke on July 29 about his excitement for watching the new mix of receivers blend in during camp.
“Everybody’s looked really good, it’s just about who brings a consistent work ethic every day and who makes plays,” Stepp said.
“We’ve got a good mix of older guys and a good mix of youth. Competition will make everybody better. You can’t have a bad day.”
Knox said the players in the unit are bonding and making each other better.
“I think we’re getting the players that coach Morris needs in his system, like skill-wise,” Knox said.
“I think we already have this certain chemistry. Our camaraderie and our togetherness and our chemistry is going to take us a long way.”
Stewart thinks the group is undervalued.
“We’ve had a lot of new guys come in who can actually help us win,” he said.
“I think our receiving corps can do something special.”