Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
State of the Hogs: Fullback Johnson one of many freshmen who can play
Arkansas linebacker De'Jon Harris (left) and fullback Hayden Johnson (right) run drills Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016, during practice in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — There are still thoughts that linebacker Josh Williams might help at fullback, but there seems to be some confidence that Arkansas might have filled that job with a brilliant true freshman. Hayden Johnson is off to a gangbuster start to fall camp.
Johnson (6-foot-3, 248 pounds) drew praise from both head coach Bret Bielema and offensive coordinator Dan Enos during the media briefing Wednesday between the workouts on the first day of two-a-days.
“The guy who has made a statement is Hayden Johnson,” said Bielema, the fourth-year head coach for the Razorbacks. “He's going to play and going to play well. In inside drill yesterday he got after our one defense. He can block, he can catch it out of the backfield.”
The Hogs have struggled to find a reliable fullback. There wasn't one on a consistent basis last year or in spring drills. The best thing they could do was line up an extra tight end there. And that can still happen with the likes of Austin Cantrell (272) and Jack Kraus (252).
Johnson played mostly in the defensive line last year at Rock Bridge High School in Columbia, Mo. But Bielema coveted him at fullback. That's proven to be a perfect fit.
“Hayden has done an excellent job and is running with our ones,” Enos said. “You can't believe he's a freshman.”
Plenty of other freshmen drew praise from the coaches Wednesday. Wide receiver Jordan Jones seems to be breaking into the rotation despite a logjam there filled with seniors.
“Jordan has been really good,” Enos said. “He's fast, explosive, has really good ball skills. He's instinctual. He understands how to throttle it down in zone and run away in man.”
Bielema covered a lot of bright spots in the freshmen class and was unclear how many would play or redshirt. On Jones there was definition, with a quick, “Jordan will play for sure.”
Then the head coach said, “We will play Hayden at fullback, and the two tailbacks. They are still learning.”
That was in reference to running backs Devwah Whaley and T. J. Hammonds.
Enos said Johnson understands the concepts better within the different schemes.
“The other two are behind schematically, but they are very good with the ball in their hands and very good players. They are learning about what to do against a very complex defense like ours, with all of the exotic blitzes on third down.”
Bielema said he thinks the freshman class has really helped the roster. He doesn't really count McTelvin Agim as a freshman anymore since he's been on campus since December when he joined in for some of the bowl practices. Agim - nicknamed "Sosa" - will play.
“I was talking with Barry Lunney, Sr., who has been around us a lot the last three years,” Bielema said. “We were walking a developmental walk through with our freshmen just yesterday and I always appreciate his insight. He said they look completely different from what we've been bringing in. There are those three defensive linemen, all over 290. There are four SEC linebackers, two safeties who can help. There's Britto Tutt, a JUCO, but a newcomer. He can play.”
Bielema and Smith both said freshman linebacker De'Jon “Scoota” Harris would play. Harris is rotating at backup middle linebacker Kendrick Jackson behind Brooks Ellis.
“Scoota has jumped in and gotten some reps,” Smith said. “We've got some depth at linebacker and we are going to be able to give some rest to Brooks Ellis and Dre Greenlaw.”
Bielema went through others who are going to help down the line, including Jake Heinrich in the offensive line and Grayson Gunter at tight end.
Among the other big hits from the coaches on Wednesday concerned the improved health of Williams, now listed as the starter at the strongside linebacker. Injured last year against Tennessee and out with serious complications from multiple surgeries, Williams now is on track to play.
Bielema got emotional again Wednesday trying to explain the serious nature of the procedures Williams fought through last year when the broken leg didn't heal properly. There was a time when doctors feared the leg could not be saved. Football was an afterthought. Bielema called Williams a team “MVP” on Wednesday.
“It was his birthday and we were up there with a cake (in the hospital),” Bielema said. “He was upbeat. He's a great person and the day he stops playing football, I will hire him as a coach.
“He is our Sam linebacker. But there are going to be a lot of times where we are not in base, like early this year against Louisiana Tech and TCU. So how much will he play in those games I'm not sure.”
That means he could play some fullback. Bielema wants to give Williams a shot at that this week in practice.
“We are going to put in our goal line packages tomorrow so we may look at him there,” Bielema said. “I want to roll him in there and let him have some fun.”
Smith raved about Williams' work ethic.
"There is not a better person in our program," Smith said. "We will have a role and a niche for him.”
There is another feel good story on the team. Defensive end Brandon Lewis could be back in the picture for a few snaps a game after battling back from serious knee surgery.
“(He) has had a nice camp,” Bielema said. “We have gone slow with him, making sure he healed. He flashed yesterday.”
Another bright moment came when Bielema mentioned defensive end Tevin Beanum's ability to play this year. Beanum has not been in camp and will join the team when school begins in 10 days. He's the next one in for the 105-man roster if there are any injuries.
Beanum started eight games last season but has not practiced since the spring while he dealt with personal problems.
“Tevin has played a lot of football for us and I don't see (his absence) as a factor,” Bielema said. “He's always been a smart player.”
That defensive end spot has been held by former walk-on Karl Roesler along with Agim. Randy Ramsey has played some end in passing situations.
“Randy had a breakthrough day yesterday,” Smith said. “He played rush end for us on first and second down.”
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