Arkansas wide receivers coach Michael Smith has heard the doubters.
He knows his group doesn’t yet have a proven home-run threat among them, and he likely knows that if it did, national pundits would be much more likely to predict the Hogs finish 2015 with 10 wins rather than a would-be disappointing eight wins.
Does the criticism matter to him? "It does," he says. "We are all football players. We all have chip on our shoulders." Smith continues: "For people to just downplay these guys that I spend everyday with, it does. It ticks me off. We're going to go out there, we are going to do what we have to do to win football games. I think people … outside the organization will be shocked at what they see."
What Smith is seeing everyday in practice is a group of steady if unspectacular returnees and newcomers who ooze game-changing potential. He shared his thoughts on them with reporters during Arkansas’ annual media day on Sunday:
Smith began by talking about his most experienced receiver, Keon Hatcher. Last season, the senior chimed in with 43 receptions, 558 receiving yards and six touchdowns last season. Hatcher enters as 2015 as the group’s most nationally respected player after earning a spot on Athlon’s fourth-team All-SEC preseason team.
"Keon has earned that respect through his play, but I think it's also earned that respect through the way he works, the way he carries himself, and with the younger guys. He's a great role model to look up to because he's been through the ins and outs of this program and he's continued to work and he's reaped some of the rewards from it. Now he's getting some preseason accolades. He just has to continue to develop and continue to master his craft. If he does that those accolades will keep coming."
Below are other choice excerpts from his interviews:
On heralded redshirt freshman JoJo Robinson:
"If JoJo's there mentally and physically, if he does this and really gets serious about it, JoJo has probably as good an opportunity to play at the next level as anybody I have in my room… These first three practices, JoJo has been dynamite. He's probably played the best out of all the guys. That's what we've always tried to stress with him. Just totally buy into it, do what you're capable of doing and special things are going to happen for you. He’s shown what we thought what we getting when we recruited him. I'm proud of the young man. I'm proud of the way that he's approached this camp. If he continues down this line he's going to play and play a lot this year."
On Damon "Duwop" Mitchell:
"I think Damon's another guy, he embraced what we were trying to preach to him. You come in here, you go through a position change, you're a freshman that's highly talented. You get thrown at the bottom of the ditch at the quarterback position, it doesn't work out for you there. You come over to a receiver position and you want to play immediately, but there were guys that were playing and that understood how to play the position. I take my hat off to Damon, he is totally bought into it, gotten the play book, learned offense, and now he's starting to see the rewards of buying into what we've preaching. He's another one that I'm very, very happy with. I'm happy for him… When young men go out and do what you ask them to do and they get to see it, that's the part of coaching that I enjoy. Damon is one of those guys that has a chance to do something special here."
[Click here for similarly detailed interview excerpts from more than 20 Hog coaches and players]
On the promise of newcomer Dominique Reed
Reed stands 6’3," broad jumps 11’11" and, legend has it, can outrun the wind.
"His upside is definitely limitless. When you get a guy that runs that well, that does catch the ball as well as he does, it's always a possibility. We have to do a great job of … smoothing into what we're doing. We can't rush the process. The great thing about Dominique, he likes to play football. He's a football junkie. By him doing that, it makes my job easy. Right now he's shown flashes at practice that he's going to be special and like I said, it's my job and our job as coaches to continue to develop him so he can be the player he can be."
On his first three days of practice
"He's obviously a special player. The first day he was kind of frustrated because he wants to know it all right now. What I told him is, "Hey man, that's why they call me ‘coach.’ I have to coach. If you knew it all I wouldn't have to be here." He's taken that in and the last two days he's been dynamite. He's a special talent, the guy can flat fly, catches the ball extremely wall, has loose hips, and has done some real good things. It's going to be a great addition to our room."
On whether the older receivers have helped Reed learn:
"There's no doubt about it. Everybody talks about Keon. But we've got, I mean Cody Hollister, Jalen Merrick, Damon, Drew Morgan ... those guys, they want us to be the best guys we can be. We don't have any selfish guys in there, and that's the great thing about my room right now. We got guys that want to have team success first. If we continue to preach that and get that across all the guys we have. These young guys that are coming in, La'Michael Pettway, Deon Stewart, that's where tradition is built and that's when you start having success as a program. These guys are buying into that, that's the kind of kids I want in the crew."
On Hunter Henry and Arkansas’ approximately 38 other tight ends
They're probably the most important thing to us in our passing game. They take a lot of pressure off us outside by what they are doing inside. Both Jeremy [Sprinkle], Hunter [Henry], [Alex] Voelzke, I mean Barry [Lunney, Jr.] has a great group of guys. We got some young guys that have come in and made some noise. The more that they do inside, keeping safeties off of us, puts us in one on one situations. We love that. We're excited about it. There's no doubt about it.
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