FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ Brandon Mitchell only had a month of practice time at wide receiver after moving over from quarterback.
The same is true for Arkansas freshman Mekale McKay, who was among a group of incoming wide receivers expected to help the Razorbacks immediately.
But when the 10th-ranked Razorbacks released their depth chart for Saturday’s season opener against Jacksonville State, it revealed both players have performed well enough to be classified as starters at the position.
Mitchell and McKay joined senior Cobi Hamilton as first-team wideouts on the team’s first official depth chart of the season. It doesn’t exactly promise both players will start when the Razorbacks take the field Saturday at 6 p.m., but is an indication of the impact they’ve had on the offense during preseason practices.
“I think both those guys add a little bit of a dimension that we haven’t had,” Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said.
Mitchell is one of the biggest surprises after stepping away from the quarterback competition to embrace a new position — and more playing time — this summer.
The move worked. The 6-foot-4 Mitchell — who has plenty of athleticism as evidence by his stint with the Arkansas basketball team — showed an ability to get open against the defense. He led the team in receiving with nine catches during the first scrimmage, using his size and soft hands to become a reliable target for Wilson.
“Big body that runs and catches and is a factor out there,” Arkansas coach John L. Smith said. “He can create some mismatches. He’s just had a great fall camp.”
Mitchell did struggle in Arkansas’ Fan Day scrimmage, a performance offensive coordinator Paul Petrino called his worst of the preseason. But Wilson believes there was a reason: Mitchell is doing much more, physically, than he is used to.
“He has been in that quarterback room for three years and says, ‘Hey, I am going to play receiver,’” Wilson said. “That takes an extra special guy to go do that. Especially when his body is not in shape to run as much as those guys do.
“I’ve seen him walk into the quarterback group each and every day and it’s just kind of like he’s beat up. It’s tough to be a receiver. You realize how hard those guys work. And Brandon has really come along.”
McKay’s potential was apparent during Arkansas’ first scrimmage work of preseason camp. The 6-foot-6 wideout, who also plays basketball, used his height and leaping ability to go over two defenders to pull in a touchdown pass.
He has shown a knack for making big plays in scrimmage sessions and Arkansas is hoping it carries over to the field beginning Saturday. McKay is one of four freshmen listed on the depth chart for the opener, joining cornerback Will Hines, wide receiver Keon Hatcher and kick returner Nate Holmes.
McKay is the only freshman in a first-team spot.
“He’s young. There are still a lot of things I think he can develop on and learn from,” Wilson said. “But he brings an element of stretching the ball down the field, making big plays. He’s a big, tall, physical target. I’m excited about having him out there.”
The depth chart also revealed a few other interesting details Monday:
• Fullback Kiero Small, in addition to his starting spot on offense, is listed as the second-team middle linebacker behind Tenarius Wright. Smith said he’s hoping Small will get plenty of work at the position during the opener.
• Former walk-on David Hurd and sophomore Brey Cook have won starting spots at offensive tackle. They will join Travis Swanson, Alvin Bailey and Tyler Deacon on the first-team offensive line against Jacksonville State.
• Wright, linebacker Alonzo Highsmith and safety Eric Bennett are all penciled into starting spots despite being sidelined for much of camp with injuries.
But the biggest news remained Mitchell and McKay, who are first-team receivers for the opener. The two will team with Hamilton (6-3) and tight end Chris Gragg (6-3), giving Wilson plenty of big options with the offense.
Smith believes the size could result in an offense that takes on a different look this season, emphasizing a shorter attack that takes advantage of size mismatches instead of a constant stream of deep balls.
“If you’re trying to cover me and I’m 6-6 and you’re 5-9, maybe we don’t need to stretch it as far,” Smith said. “Just throw me the ball.”
That may be. But Wilson said the offense will remain aggressive with Petrino calling the shots. He promised Arkansas — with a receiving corps that includes big receivers Hamilton, Gragg, Mitchell and McKay — wants to attack downfield.
“We’ll definitely take shots,” Wilson said. “I’m going to be aggressive. Our play-caller’s going to be aggressive. He’s voiced that to me a number of times as long as he feels I can check it down when it’s not there. If you’ve got that combination, that chemistry, between a quarterback and play-caller you can take shots.”
Jacksonville State at Arkansas
KICKOFF: 6 p.m. TV: PPV
WHERE: Reynolds Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
RADIO: Razorback Sports Network
SATELLITE RADIO: Sirus (Ch. 107), XM (Ch. 200)
2011 RECORDS: Jacksonville State Gamecocks, 7-4, 6-2 (tied, first) Ohio Valley Conference; Arkansas Razorbacks, 11-2, 6-2 (third, West) Southeastern Conference
LAST GAME: Jacksonville State defeated Tennessee State 38-16 on Nov. 19 in Nashville, Tenn.; Arkansas defeated Kansas State 29-16 on Jan. 6 in the Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas
SERIES: First meeting
COACHES: Jacksonville State, Jack Crowe (81-52, 12th season; 95-82 overall, 16th season); Arkansas, John L. Smith (0-0, first season; 132-86 overall, 19th season)