HOOVER, Ala. -- Arkansas coach Houston Nutt arrived at SEC Media Days on Friday with a bad taste in his mouth. It was the same one that has been there since last December.
Nutt's Razorbacks failed to qualify for a bowl game after finishing 2004 at 5-6, the first time in seven years under Nutt that they didn't make the postseason.
"It's been a long offseason," Nutt said. "It is a terrible feeling. Our players felt it. Our coaches felt it. We had every intention of being the only team at Arkansas to go to seven straight, and we were so close."
Indeed, Arkansas suffered a two-point loss to Texas, a three-point defeat to South Carolina and a six-point setback against Georgia. If even one of those games goes the other way, the Razorbacks are bowling.
"That's what makes you sick," Nutt said. "It's a great teacher; it's a fine line between winning and losing. If you go back and watch the season, you are three or four plays away from being 7-4, possibly 8-3."
But Nutt likes how his players have reacted to the disappointing season.
"Our guys have worked extremely hard, and we had a few more 5:30 a.m. workouts," Nutt said. "Our players started their workouts this summer a little bit earlier. You can feel the sense of urgency, the attitude and the commitment.
"There's a little bit more attention, a little bit more sacrifice, a little bit more investment. So that's the road that we're on."
It's a road the Razorbacks will be traveling without ultra-athletic quarterback Matt Jones, who moved on to the NFL and is now a receiver for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
"It's hard to believe I won't have No. 9," Nutt said of Jones. "He helped us lead the league in scoring and did a lot of positive things for us. But he was our only returning starter last year, and that is good news, because everybody else is a little older now."
Even with Jones gone, Arkansas has some weapons with which to work. Nutt is thrilled with the development of sophomore receiver Marcus Monk, who caught 37 passes for 569 yards and six scores as a freshman. It was a pleasant surprise from a player Nutt thought was destined to play basketball.
"I really thought he was just going to basically show up for football and then go to basketball," Nutt said. "I really thought his first love was basketball.
"But boy, he proved us wrong. He outworked everyone and executed under pressure. He has tremendous hands. Not good hands; great hands. And he's 6-foot-6. It makes a difference. With those long arms, he can go up and get the ball."
The question is, who will be throwing it to him? Sophomore Robert Johnson is atop the depth chart right now, but freshmen Alex Mortensen and Cole Barthel are right in the mix. Mortensen redshirted a year ago, while Barthel originally signed with Arkansas in 2001 before playing minor league baseball for four seasons.
"All three of them have some good qualities," Nutt said. "The one thing they are all missing is experience.
"Robert Johnson is the most athletic guy that we have. He has a strong arm and won some championships in high school. Alex Mortensen is smart, heady guy that will sit in that pocket, and I think is very, very accurate. And Cole Barthel is an older guy that doesn't flinch. He has some good things working for him, good intangibles."
Injuries to the offensive line during Spring practice prevented Nutt from selecting a starter. With only five healthy offensive linemen, the Razorbacks could not scrimmage and see the quarterbacks under fire. But Nutt will not wait long to pick his guy, saying he will name a starter after about 10 days of fall camp.
Defensively, Nutt hired defensive coordinator Reggie Herring away from North Carolina State in the offseason. In Herring's only season coaching the Wolfpack defense, N.C. State led the nation in total defense, allowing just 221 yards per game after giving up 421 per game the year before.
"I am excited about Reggie Herring," Nutt said. "He brings a lot of passion to the game. And he just knows how to get them going full speed. Tracy Rocker, our defensive line coach, after being in this league, is a year older and a year smarter. I just think we have good chemistry."
The Razorbacks return nine starters on defense, including the entire secondary. But the defensive backs will need to improve after ranking 11th in the SEC in passing yards allowed and last in pass defense efficiency. An improved pass rush would not hurt, and Nutt made some changes up front that may help.
"We made a couple of moves I think will be key," Nutt said. "Marcus Harrison, a 300-pound guy, we moved inside. I am excited about that, it gives us a little bit more athleticism there. Desmond Sims, who played linebacker, we moved to defensive end, and he really had an outstanding spring. So we became much more athletic with a couple moves."
Nutt just hopes the changes mean he is preparing for another bowl game this December. He doesn't want to go through another long offseason.
"I think our players and coaches were embarrassed," Nutt said. "These guys really just did an outstanding job all winter long, and I think that's where it starts. That's where you start building your football team to get back to winning, get back to that bowl."
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