FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Keon Hatcher wasn’t sure at first what to expect from an unplanned fifth season at Arkansas.
However, whatever hesitation the wide receiver had about returning to the Razorbacks — following a broken left foot that cost him most of last season — has long since been put behind him.
The 6-foot-2, 207-pound receiver has returned to his role as one of the top receiving targets for resurgent No. 17 Arkansas (3-0), a position he hopes to highlight on Saturday against No. 10 Texas A&M (3-0).
“Keon is definitely the glue that makes that group go,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. “He’s a pretty intelligent, gifted wide receiver that, if he continues to play well, will be rewarded for a long time.”
Hatcher began last season as the unquestioned top receiver for the Razorbacks, a role he affirmed by catching 13 passes for 198 yards in the first two games. It was in that second game against Toledo, though, that Hatcher felt the break in his foot — forcing him to miss the rest of the season and reevaluate his immediate career plans.
Like many of his former teammates, including current Buffalo Bills running back Jonathan Williams, Hatcher expected to try his shot at the NFL after last season.
It was a path he decided to put off for a year while rehabilitating from his injury, one that also meant he would be without many of the teammates and friends he began college with.
“It was very tough at first,” Hatcher said. “The guys that I’m so close with, Sebastian (Tretola), (Williams), those guys, they all left and I had to come back. It was very tough, but it was a blessing.”
While Hatcher lost many of his closest friends, he returned in a leadership position his coaches wanted him to take advantage of.
The first way wide receivers coach Michael Smith made sure Hatcher did just that was by making sure he stayed around his teammates while recovering following surgery.
“Through that whole process, he was always around,” Smith said. “The thing I wouldn’t let him do is not be around the football team. The guys still have a lot of faith in his words, so it’s been an easy transition — if it even was a transition.”
Hatcher also had to adjust to life with a new starting quarterback — Austin Allen — for the first time in three seasons.
After an offseason of working together, it’s an adjustment that’s gone just fine so far for both — with Hatcher second on the Razorbacks in catches (11) and first in receiving yards (204) after three games. That includes a career-best 73-yard catch in Arkansas’ 42-3 win over Texas State a week ago, a play that capped a three-catch, 96-yard receiving first quarter for the senior.
“Keon’s been huge for us this year, just the way he handles his business and teaches the younger guys how to act like a professional, really,” Allen said. “He’s been through it all, and the way he’s playing this year is all about the work he’s put in during the summer and it’s really showing.”
Last week’s performance is one Hatcher hopes repeat this week against a Texas A&M team that’s beaten the Razorbacks in each of Hatcher’s first four seasons, including the last two in overtime.
“It’s time to get over the hump,” Hatcher said.