Ole Miss win could be springboard for Santos Ramirez

Arkansas' wide receiver Drew Morgan (80) celebrates with Arkansas' defensive back Santos Ramirez (9) after Ramirez caused a fumble that sealed the game against the Mississippi Rebels in the second half of an NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016, in Fayetteville, Ark. Arkansas beat Mississippi 34-30. (AP Photo/Chris Brashers)

— Bret Bielema remembers the first time he laid eyes on Santos Ramirez during the recruiting process.

“I was like, ‘This is what you want.’ Tall, rangy athletic, a true, good football demeanor, very coachable. Mom did a great job with him. From a very rich, historic program in Louisiana,” Bielema said.

Ramirez, now a sophomore, is coming off perhaps his best game in a Razorback uniform. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound strong safety finished with a modest four tackles in the 34-30 win over No. 12 Ole Miss, but made a pair of game-defining plays late in the fourth quarter to help seal the win.

First, he delivered a big hit to break up a third-down pass intended for Ole Miss receiver Van Jefferson, ending a Rebel possession to set up Arkansas’ go-ahead touchdown drive.

After the Hogs scored to take the lead, Ramirez sealed the win when he knocked the ball free from Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly just shy of the first-down marker on a fourth-and-16 scramble.

“Santos can be a player beyond anything he’s ever dreamed of being, but on that last play he went for the whack shot which obviously caused the ball to come out, but we’d probably prefer a lower hit and a wrap-up tackle, because he spun out of it,” Bielema said. “If he doesn’t lose the ball, he could run for the first down, so there’s a tremendous learning curve there for Santos. … A play like that, recognized the way he did, could catapult him to someone special.”

Saturday was an encouraging night for Ramirez and fellow safety Josh Liddell after the unit struggled against Alabama, a game Ramirez missed most of with an injury. Against Ole Miss, the duo came downhill to support the run effectively and were sure tacklers in the open field on most occasions, sans two whiffs on short touchdown runs.

“Any time you prepare the way those two guys prepare and you have some positive action take place, that leads to confidence,” defensive coordinator Robb Smith said. “That’s obviously got to carry over to this week. Auburn’s going to run the football. We’re going to have to use our safeties in the run game.”

Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, Ramirez and Liddell are likely the only two safeties they’ll be able to play in the first half with De’Andre Coley relegated to watching from the locker room after being ejected on a targeting call in the third quarter of the Ole Miss game.

Class of 2016 signees Micahh Smith and Deon Edwards are halfway into a redshirt season. Reserves Reid Miller and Ryder Lucas will have increased reps in practice this week, particularly Miller. Both are solid program players, but the likelihood of either actually playing meaningful reps in a crucial SEC game isn’t high.

It’s more likely that Lidell and Ramirez will play all the first-half safety snaps, similar to how they did when Coley was ejected for targeting against Texas A&M. Cornerback Henre’ Toliver could play safety in a pinch.

The situation underscores the depth issue at safety. The Razorbacks only have three they trust to play and only one — Ramirez — that fits a certain mold.

“I’d like to get more that look like him,” Bielema said. “…Unfortunately, he’s the only guy that hits that body-type, that frame-type, right now, but we’re definitely moving that way in recruiting.”

The Razorbacks have a pledge from four-star safety Montaric Brown, a 6-foot, 175-pound Ashdown native ranked among the 200 best class of 2017 players in the nation by multiple recruiting services. They also have a pledge from 5-11, 175-pound Korey Hernandez.

Brown could potentially be able to contribute as a freshman, but the Razorbacks will have to make due with Ramirez and Liddell for the first half of a key SEC game Saturday before Coley rejoins the mix.

The trio has had its share of ups and downs, but Saturday was a step in the right direction the Hogs hope marks a turning point for Ramirez and the rest of the unit.