Arkansas' Hamilton making most of opportunity
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (AP)
Cobi Hamilton knew he was stepping into an already crowded wide receiver position when he came to Arkansas. By the time his career is finished, Hamilton could be the one all other Razorbacks receivers look up to.
Hamilton has made the most of his long-awaited opportunity as the go-to receiver this season for Arkansas, leading the Southeastern Conference with 73 catches and 1,149 yards receiving. The senior has already set the school's single-season records in both categories, and he's within striking distance of the career marks.
He'll face no easy task in reaching those records in the Razorbacks (4-6, 2-4 SEC) final two games, beginning at Mississippi State (7-3, 3-3) on Saturday. Regardless of whether Hamilton sets the career records, he has already proven he's more-than capable of being a No. 1 receiver rather than just a talented understudy.
The Texarkana, Texas, high school star signed with Arkansas despite the presence of three talented receivers who were already on campus. Those three - Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Greg Childs - are all in the NFL now.
Hamilton could have gone to any number of other schools, including Auburn, Texas or Oklahoma State. However, he chose Arkansas and welcomed the competition with the already established trio - each of whom was selected in the fourth round of April's NFL draft.
Their departures opened the door for the 6-foot-3, 209-pound Hamilton, who worked tirelessly throughout the offseason to prepare for the lead role.
''This is the year that I expected to have,'' Hamilton said. ''... I put a lot of time being behind all those great receivers, just learning the little things from them. I'm really excited I have this one year to showcase my skills and what I learned from those guys.''
Hamilton was used as a jack-of-all-trades during his first three seasons while backing up Wright, Adams and Childs. His job was to know everybody's job, from slot receiver to wideout, and he excelled in each, primarily running deep routes.
Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said Hamilton was often referred to as ''the 200-meter guy'' because his top-end speed was better than his acceleration off the line of scrimmage. Aware of his need to improve, Hamilton worked on his initial burst and has become Wilson's most reliable - if not his only, at times - target.
''He's done such a great job in the last six months of figuring out how to get off the line so much quicker than he has in the past,'' Wilson said. ''That's made him such a dynamic receiver because we can get the ball to him quicker.
''It allows him to get in passing lanes and windows quicker and stretch the field a little quicker, this being able to get the ball to him and him being able to make some big plays.''
Hamilton has 51 more catches than the Razorbacks' second-leading receiver this season, tight end Chris Gragg. Like many on Arkansas this season, Gragg has battled injuries throughout the season - leaving Hamilton as the focus of both the offense and opposing defenses.
The double-teams and other specialized coverages, however, haven't slowed Hamilton.
Hamilton broke the school's single season receptions record during an 11-catch, 177-yard performance against Tulsa on Nov. 3. He bested Wright's former mark of 66 catches, and he eclipsed Wright's single-season yardage mark during a loss to South Carolina last week.
''He was always fast, but now he's gotten himself quick,'' Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. ''He has quick feet, too, and he has the ability to stop and get in and out of his breaks. That's usually what separates the good from the great is who can get separation at the top of their routes and get in and out of their breaks.''
Now in Hamilton's sights are the school's career records. With 158 catches, he's 10 behind Wright. And with 2,668 yards, he's 266 behind his former teammate and current Minnesota Vikings wideout with the visit to the Bulldogs and a home game against LSU remaining.
Hamilton said he was unaware of the records, insisting he'd prefer two more wins and bowl eligibility for a fourth straight season. He also said it's been difficult this season to balance his personal success with the disappointment of the Razorbacks, who began the season ranked in the top 10.
''It's been like a roller coaster ride, just up and down,'' Hamilton said. ''... I'm just ready to finish this season off as a team.''