State of the Hogs: Knox wows in spring game

By: Clay Henry
Published: Saturday, April 6, 2019
Arkansas receiver Trey Knox carries the ball into the end zone Saturday, April 6, 2019, during the Razorbacks' spring game in Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas receiver Trey Knox carries the ball into the end zone Saturday, April 6, 2019, during the Razorbacks' spring game in Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville

— To be good in the SEC, you need cover cornerbacks.

Arkansas may be improved on defense to the degree that Jarques McClellion and Montaric Brown stay healthy.

Those who saw the Razorbacks practice on a daily basis this spring think McClellion and Brown have the speed and change of direction to take away some of the easy throws that made the defense porous for the last three to four seasons.

And, that’s what it looked like for most of the time the first defense was on the field in the Red-White Game on Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

That was it until Trey Knox decided to make a spectacular play going over the middle with 1:21 left in the first half for the game’s first touchdown.

McClellion had great position underneath Knox, the 6-5 freshman who has gotten rave reviews every day in the spring. Not only did I not think Knox was open, but didn’t figure quarterback Ben Hicks could see him.

Boom, Hicks not only delivered it just past the outstretched hands of McClellion, but Knox snatched it and immediately turned his hips to head toward the end zone on a 45-yard touchdown play.

Oh, but there was one more sweet thing in the catch and run. Knox leaned one way and zagged opposite to leave safety Kamren Curl reaching for air.

It was the kind of play that confirmed everything anyone had said about Knox during recruiting. There were two Razorbacks in pursuit, but no one caught the lanky receiver.

“The coverage was pretty good,” Arkansas coach Chad Morris said.

It was really good. But that’s what happens with playmakers. Hicks, the SMU senior transfer, has found him all spring, and so has redshirt freshman John Stephen Jones.

The Hogs will use him in many ways, including those throws over the middle. But he’s also a target on high passes on the goal line. You can throw it up and Knox is going to high point the ball above smaller defensive backs.

Knox can make you wrong when you are right, just like McClellion in the Red-White game.

“Trey had a good day,” Hicks said. “He continues to grow and learn. He has to put on some weight so he can be physical in press coverage. That would be big for him (this summer).”

Hicks probably should have gone to Knox more in what was a boring and lackluster spring game. That’s probably by design. It was mostly a day with plunges into the line.

“It was very simple today, by design,” Morris said. “But we have to do simple better.”

That was the focus of the spring.

“That’s what we talked about, doing simple better,” Morris said. “Our focus has been on fundamentals. We have to operate our base offense better.

“Now, there were a lot of things we did this spring that we didn’t show today, both sides of the ball. That was by design.”

Morris said that’s the nature of spring games over the “whole country.”

Hicks, the clear starter at quarterback, was just 8 of 18 for 100 yards. But he wasn’t allowed to check to the screens or the run-pass options in the offense that are the staples in the throwing game.

Jones was a little better at 13 of 22 for 112 yards, but he threw a pick-six to nickel back Devin Bush to end the first half, probably the play that ensured that the defense would win the game, 39-33, in a modified scoring system designed by Morris.

Jones found a few more holes in the second-team defense. Hicks worked with the ones on offense, but faced the much better first-team defense that included McTelvin “Sosa” Agim.

Agim dominated up front. It’s been like that every day this spring as different offensive linemen rotated across from him. Agim toyed with offensive lineman Shane Clenin on Saturday.

Noah Gatlin didn’t get a taste of Agim’s wrath Saturday. Decked from a severe battle with the flu in the heart of the spring, Gatlin worked behind Dalton Wagner at right tackle. Gatlin may be a starter somewhere before the competition ends in camp in the constant shuffle with the O-line.

But Gatlin was in the interview room Saturday and stepped up when Agim was mentioned. The specific question was: What does the senior linemen do that causes so much havoc?

“What doesn’t he do is probably the right answer,” Gatlin said. “You saw it. He’s just so big and athletic. He can do anything he wants in pass rush.”

Hicks stepped in with some help.

“It’s the experience and he’s just a great athlete,” Hicks said. “He plays hard and just has so much experience. He’s great for our line to work against because every one in our league has one like him.”

There may not be a lot like Knox all across the SEC. Agim provided a warning that coaches might cringe at hearing.

“He’s a great player,” Agim said of Knox. “He’s great for the present and the future. He’s a three-year guy. I tell Razorback fans to enjoy him while he’s here.”

Ironically, that’s what most were saying when the Hogs signed Agim, a true five-star recruit from Hope and Texarkana, Texas; he spent time in both towns.

Agim decided to return for his senior season with feedback from NFL scouts noting his future would be at defensive tackle, not defensive end where he spent most of his first three seasons at Arkansas.

There has been a buy-in at tackle and the kind of “consistency” Morris said was the missing ingredient in his play. That was clear to see Saturday.

Those are among the highlights, but there were plenty on the other end of the spectrum. The offensive line had trouble maintaining a pocket. And, there weren’t enough playmakers.

Part of that is the number of walking wounded after perhaps the most physical spring in the last three or four years. This reminded of Bret Bielema’s second and third spring when hitting was daily and fierce.

Sitting out were several difference makers like running back Rakeem Boyd (offseason shoulder surgery) and linebacker De’Jon Harris (foot surgery). Those are probably team captains, the clear leaders of the team.

There isn’t depth to absorb those types of injuries at those two key positions, much less anywhere else on this team.

Two more players who were not in uniform Saturday will change the depth at quarterback.

Nick Starkel, set to transfer from Texas A&M in a few weeks, attended and was mobbed by coaches and players afterward. Morris gave him a big hug on the way off the field.

Connor Noland missed every Saturday scrimmage to pitch for the baseball team. He did make every Tuesday practice.

“I think we had him five days,” Morris said of Noland. “He did great.”

The Hogs are hardly great yet, but there is growth. The defense appears to be more fundamentally sound in the second year under John "Chief" Chavis, the veteran coordinator.

Linebacker Grant Morgan, the fill-in for Harris this spring, thought the work for the entire spring pleased Chavis, also the linebackers coach.

“He’s always looking for improvement,” Morgan said, adding, “I think Chief was smiling.”

There was one other key matter to smile about - no injuries. There had been too many in the first 13 practices – with one practice left Monday – so finishing the spring game with zero injuries might be the best part of the day.

No, that was Trey Knox. It’s a good bet that anyone who watched the Razorbacks on Saturday knows that now.


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