FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Drew Morgan couldn’t resist the chance to celebrate after making a 44-yard catch during Arkansas’ first preseason scrimmage, even if that meant risking a penalty.
The Razorbacks sophomore, however, had just cause for the enthusiasm.
It had been a while since Morgan, or any of the Arkansas wide receivers for that matter, had enough reason to celebrate — particularly during a drop-filled season a year ago.
“I would never do that in a game, but man if making that play didn’t feel good,” Morgan said.
Led by the emergence of Morgan and a restocked talent pool of playmakers, the Razorbacks hope to emerge from the bottom of the Southeastern Conference’s passing attacks when they open the season at No. 6 Auburn on Saturday.
They do so mired in a 12-game SEC losing streak, including a winless conference campaign in coach Bret Bielema’s first season a year ago.
Arkansas was last in the league in passing last season, averaging a paltry 148.5 yards per game through the air. Part of the cause was a shoulder injury to Brandon Allen that limited the quarterback to one practice per week and required him to take numbing shots before each game in order to play.
While Allen took much of the criticism, he wasn’t aided by an inexperienced group of wide receivers still looking for an identity following the loss of four players — Joe Adams, Greg Childs, Jarius Wright and Cobi Hamilton — to the NFL draft over the previous two years.
The result was a number of dropped passes, as well Allen’s hesitancy to throw balls into coverage and give his receivers a chance to make a play.
“I already have more confidence in them as of right now,” Allen said. “I think this year I’ll give them the chance to make that play, not just throw it away.
“I have the confidence in them to make the play, and I know they want that chance. I’m going to give it to them.”
Allen finished with a 49.6 completion percentage last season, but he’s completed 36 of 48 passes (75 percent) in two preseason scrimmages this year — showing a trust level with his receivers not apparent a year ago.
Morgan has been the biggest beneficiary of the newfound trust, finishing with six catches for 113 yards in the opening scrimmage. The 6-foot, 194-pound receiver didn’t have a catch in 10 games last season, but he’s eager to show the Tigers how far he and the entire group of receivers has come.
“I feel like I do have something to prove,” Morgan said. “I feel very underrated. I’m not going to play with cockiness, but I am going to play with confidence. You’ll see it on the field.”
Senior Javontee Herndon led the Razorbacks with 31 catches for 437 yards last season, neither statistic anywhere near the SEC leaders. The next leading receiver was tight end Hunter Henry with 28 catches and a team-leading 14.6 yards per catch — outstanding numbers for the All-SEC freshman but hardly what Arkansas wanted out of its second-leading receiver.
Junior Keon Hatcher is the Razorbacks leading returning receiver after finishing with 27 catches last season, though he also had several of the drops that plagued the team.
Hatcher is one of several players Bielema expects to see improvement from this season, a group that includes senior Demetrius Wilson — who missed all of last season with a knee injury.
Also, transfer Cody Hollister has impressed since the spring, as have freshmen Jared Cornelius, JoJo Robinson and Kendrick Edwards.
“They’ve just caught the ball so much more effectively this fall, and in camp especially that gets you very excited,” Bielema said.