FAYETTEVILLE – Arkansas’ quarterback battle has finally been decided. Well, at least for Week 1.
At a scheduled press conference on Monday, head coach Chad Morris named former SMU graduate-transfer Ben Hicks as the Hogs’ starter entering Saturday’s season opener against Portland State. Hicks got the nod after holding off another grad-transfer in Nick Starkel, who joined the program this summer after spending his first three years at Texas A&M.
The prolonged competition dominated headlines, sports talk radio shows and message boards across the Natural State since March 4 when Starkel committed to the Hogs.
Those conversations will likely continue well into the season, especially with Morris suggesting it could be just a matter of time before Starkel – and the young talent around him – catches up.
“We feel very confident in Ben and his compete overall knowledge, as you would expect,” Morris said. “Ben has been in this offense for three years. Been here since January. Nick has been in this offense for three weeks. But to see the growth of what Nick has done for three weeks has been extremely impressive. I think Ben has an incredible command for everyone and where everyone should be.
“We’re going to play a lot of young guys, and that alone was the main deciding factor – (Hicks’) ability to know where everybody’s supposed to be, to get our offensive line in the right protection and do it at a pace to where the game, because of his experience, is a little bit slower.
“So, experience and knowledge of the offense and playing a lot of the young guys (was the deciding factor).”
For those who have attended practices during fall camp, it’s clear that Starkel is the more gifted passer and has a higher ceiling.
But Hicks, who played in Morris’ offense for three years at SMU, enrolled in January and had the advantage of going through spring drills while Starkel didn’t arrive until the start of summer.
Offensive coordinator Joe Craddock echoed Morris’s account of the quarterback battle, but also left the door cracked for a QB change at some point during the season.
“We feel that Ben gives us the best chance to win right now because he can really get everybody going in the right way,” Craddock said. “He can make sure that if a freshman receiver is split out too wide or too tight, he can be able to move him around and make protection calls and help the offensive line and help the running backs.
“So it’s just kind of what we felt like that gives us the best chance to win going into Week 1.”
Week 2 at Ole Miss, however, could be a different story.
Hicks should have no trouble lighting up Portland State, but the next week’s trip to Oxford is a huge one for the Razorbacks as they aim for six wins and bowl eligibility in 2019.
Based on the enormity of the conference opener, there is a sense that Morris wouldn’t hesitate to make an in-game switch if things aren’t going well for Hicks.
“Nick has done a great job and has picked up the offense in a few short weeks, and he has an incredible skillset,” Morris said. “We’re excited to watch his continued growth and knowledge of this offense and the understanding of this offense in weeks to come.”
The Razorbacks and Vikings will kick off at 3 p.m. inside Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on Saturday.
The game will be nationally televised by the SEC Network.