Deon Stewart, Jordan Jones are top KR candidates

By: Jimmy Carter
Published: Wednesday, August 23, 2017
Arkansas' Deon Stewart returns a kick during a game against LSU on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016, in Fayetteville.
Photo by Jason Ivester
Arkansas' Deon Stewart returns a kick during a game against LSU on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2016, in Fayetteville.

— If Arkansas wins the toss against Florida A&M and elects to receive next Thursday, sophomore Deon Stewart and redshirt freshman Jordan Jones are the two best bets to get the first touch of the season.

The two receivers are repping as the Razorbacks’ top two kick returners entering game week.

“Deon Stewart and Jordan Jones are probably the most likely to kickoff return,” coach Bret Bielema said Wednesday before an appearance at the NWA Touchdown Club.

Later Wednesday, Stewart indicated he was working ahead of Jones as the deep man on returns with another receiver, junior college transfer Jonathan Nance, handling the off return man duties.

Improving the kick returner game has been a focal point in the offseason for obvious reasons.

Stewart was Arkansas’ primary return man for the majority of his redshirt freshman season in 2016, with middling results. The 5-foot-11, 162-pounder averaged a team-best 20 yards per return, but was often snowballed by opposing coverage teams as a result of subpar blocking.

As a team, the Razorbacks’ 18.6 yards per return ranked last in the SEC and 111th out of 128 teams nationally. That led to offseason discussions on how to improve the return game.

“We’ve obviously adjusted our schemes a little bit,” Bielema said. “I think better personnel, better job of coaching. Hopefully we’ll get better results.”

Arkansas worked on kick returns for one period Wednesday and installed two new returns, Stewart said.

In addition to schematic tweaks, there appears to be an emphasis on putting more speed on the field in the return game.

Jones is arguably the fastest player on the team, but the Hogs are trying other speedsters out in the role during practice. Bielema mentioned freshmen receivers Koilan Jackson, Jarrod Barnes and De’Vion Warren and freshman cornerback Chevin Calloway as candidates Wednesday. Stewart said junior college receiver transfer Gary Cross got some return work Wednesday, along with freshman running back Chase Hayden.

Hayden is listed alongside fellow backs Devwah Whaley and David Williams in a 1A, 1B, 1C setup and appears destined for a sizable role on offense, but his speed, quickness and moves could make him a shifty return man even though he didn't field many kickoffs the past few years in high school.

"I did it all of my freshman and sophomore year," Hayden said. "My junior and senior year they kind of pulled me back because I was playing both ways."

Bielema has touted the speed in the freshman class all month and did so again while addressing the crowd at the NW Arkansas Touchdown Club on Wednesday. Barnes, Warren and Hayden, along with Jones, appear to be among the best athletes on the team.

Stewart and Jones are the top return candidates, but athleticism could be a ticket to a few freshmen earning extra playing time in hopes of improving the return game at some point this season.

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