Nate Allen is a columnist for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of the University of Missouri, Allen is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and voter for the Heisman Trophy. He has authored three books about the Razorbacks.
Newcomers making a difference already
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, back, watches on as Jared Cornelius catches a pass during spring football practice Tuesday, April 22, 2014, at University of Arkansas in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE - In the ideal college football recruiting world, all recruits signed would fare better than all the existing players at hand.
That’s an impossibility, of course, unless the existing team was so absolutely, dreadfully noncompetitive that any addition anywhere marks an immediate improvement.
Even though Arkansas’ football team was 0-8 in the SEC last season for the first time in its history, the Razorbacks were not so noncompetitive that every recruit becomes an upgrade.
Other than the 52-7 and 52-0 blowouts administered by South Carolina and Alabama, the 2013 Razorbacks were competitive even against eventual SEC champion/national runner-up Auburn and certainly in the woulda, coulda, shoulda games that got away against Mississippi State and LSU.
Therefore, while Coach Bret Bielema craves seeing some of his 2014 Razorbacks newcomers excel to the point that they earn starting time on merit rather than by default, the more traditional role of newcomers improving a team just by their presence still applies.
It applies already. The four early-bird newcomers enrolled at the UA since January have created a depth-chart shuffling impact with two practices remaining, including Saturday’s 1 p.m. Red-White game that concludes spring drills.
The four include three freshmen who graduated from high school in December: Quarterback Rafe Peavey of Bolivar, Mo., cornerback Chris Murphy of Marietta, Ga., and receiver Jared Cornelius of Shreveport Evangel Christian. There was also one junior college transfer, sophomore receiver Cody Hollister of Arizona Western Junior College.
Redshirt freshman Austin Allen and Peavey have shown enough to Bielema and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney as potential backups to junior starting quarterback Brandon Allen that the coaches moved scholarship quarterbacks AJ Derby, a senior and last year’s backup quarterback, to tight end and redshirt freshman quarterback Damon “Duwop” Mitchell to receiver.
While touting the spring improvement of five returning cornerbacks, Bielema, new defensive coordinator Robb Smith and new secondary coach Clay Jennings keep mentioning Murphy in the mix.
Most of all, Cornelius and Hollister will make an impact immediately not only on the second team but will push the first-team envelope so much that returning lettermen feel the push.
Bielema even noted the improvement of junior two-year letterman Keon Hatcher (27 catches, 346 yards, 2 touchdowns last season) because of the heat he is feeling the heat from Hollister.
“I think he’s felt the pressure of 81 [Hollister],” Bielema said. “Cody is behind him and 81 can play. So I think he [Hatcher] is realizing, ‘Hey, there are some new cowboys in town that want to play in my rodeo.’ So I think that’s made him a little better.”
Cornelius caught 8 passes for 89 yards and 1 touchdown in the April 5 and April 12 scrimmages and impressed in other practices that were open to the media.
Infinitely more important to them, Cornelius and Hollister have impressed Chaney and receivers coach Michael Smith.
“They will be on the field the first game,” Smith said April 1. “They both are going to play in the first game and play a lot.”
Sports, Pages 16 on 04/23/2014