FAYETTEVILLE – Upon last summer’s Arkansas arrival and emergence of graduate transfer quarterback Nick Starkel it became natural to forget incumbent graduate transfer quarterback Ben Hicks’ command of the Razorbacks last spring.
Arriving last January as a graduate transfer from SMU where he had been redshirted in 2015 by former SMU coach become Arkansas coach Chad Morris and was Morris’ SMU record-setting starting quarterback in 2016 and ’17, Hicks took spring practice hold on the Razorbacks.
Hicks remained No. 1 even as Starkel’s stronger arm manifested during the August preseason. But Hicks’ tentative start in the 20-13 season-opening victory over lower division Portland State and trailing 10-3 at halftime start in Game Two, the 31-17 SEC loss at Ole Miss, prompted Morris switching to Starkel. Starkel quarterbacked every snap from the second half at Ole Miss through the 55-34 victory over Colorado State, 31-24 loss to San Jose State and the interception that Starkel threw with 5:36 left in the first half of Arkansas’ eventual 31-27 SEC loss last Saturday to the 23rd ranked Texas A&M Aggies at the Dallas Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium.
Trying to tackle the interceptor, mammoth 6-4, 304 defensive tackle Justin Madubuike, Starkel so injured his left arm he couldn’t grip the snap.
On came Hicks. In complete command, Hicks completed 15 of 27 for 188 yards and a touchdown, surprised as the non-runner evading A&M tacklers for a gutsy 17-yard scramble.
“I thought Ben was very much calm and during the moment and I thought he did an incredible job coming in in a tough situation and really responded,” Morris said on postgame radio “It says a lot about his pride and character and a lot about preparation because he was definitely prepared and he did give us a chance.”
To media postgame, Morris said, “I was proud of Ben and the professionalism he’s shown. I think he’s had a chance over the last couple of weeks to step back and prepare himself, knowing that the opportunity was going to come again. I did think he played well. That’s what you ask of your backup when he comes in.”
Unless Starkel’s arm hasn’t healed when the Hogs next play off this open date week resuming Oct. 12 in an SEC game at Kentucky, the quarterback pecking order stays intact.
“Nick’s our starter,” Morris said.
But the Hogs know if needed their backup can command immediately,
“Man, I’m impressed by Ben,” senior tight end Cheyenne O’Grady, 8 catches from Starkel and Hicks for 91 yards against A&M, said. “He’s been the same person every day even after he lost the starting role. In practice he’s always encouraging people and he’s just very consistent in what he does. That is why he showed up today and played like he did.”
Unlike Starkel. who graduated from Texas A&M transferring to Arkansas with two collegiate seasons remaining, this is it for football fifth-year senior Hicks.
“These last few games are the last opportunity I have to play college football,” Hicks said. “So I’m going to be as ready as I can be each and every week. When my time comes I’m going to cut it loose and get after it.”
Knowing all about Starkel, their former teammate with starts as A&M’s quarterback, the Aggies admit Hicks’ prowess caught them by surprise.
“We didn’t watch as much film for No. 6 (Hicks) as Nick,” Madubuike said. “We weren’t expecting him to make the plays that he made. He’s a great player.”
Coach Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies did anticipate and received the fanatical effort forthcoming from Arkansas.
That may seem hard to fathom given the Hogs wallowed, 31-24 nonconference losers the previous week in Fayetteville to by 21-points underdog San Jose State.
But a history of four of the previous five annual Arkansas and Texas A&M SEC West games decided by seven A&M points, kept A&M on guard. Plus the Aggies’ couldn’t slack coming off a home SEC loss when favored over Auburn.’
“No, they (his Aggies) didn’t overlook them,” Fisher said. “They practiced their tails off. Hats off to Arkansas. They made plays.
Just not quite enough plays to win. An all-too familiar formula against A&M, Morris knows, even while appreciating the strides taken.
“I’m extremely proud of our football team, “Morris said at AT&T Stadium. “But we’ve got to find ways to win games like this. And that’s on me and we will.”