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: New players mesh with new ideas
Arkansas coach Dave Van Horn (left) speaks with hitting coach Nate Thompson Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, during fall practice at Baum Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Talent is important. So is coaching. When the two come together, it can be fun, especially for the head coach.
Dave Van Horn might have the best of both worlds - a talented roster and two of the nation's best assistant coaches.
Why would I say that? That's what I see when I have watched fall baseball practices in the last four weeks. I've heard it from players, too. Sometimes it's off the record and sometimes it's from a veteran player like Carson Shaddy, who went on the record Tuesday ahead of the start to Arkansas baseball's fall intrasquad series.
“What's happening right now is that we have good pitching that is sharpening good hitting,” Shaddy said. “I think the hitting is pretty good, so that's helping the pitching.
“I think our pitching on this team – with top end guys like Blaine Knight and Isaiah Campbell - is as good as anything we'll see next spring.”
Van Horn agreed with Shaddy's assessment, then added, “Yes, we think our pitching is really good, but right now our hitters – and some of them are freshmen – are giving it to the pitchers.”
Wes Johnson is the second-year pitching coach and Nate Thompson in his first year as hitting coach.
There's a lot of belief that Thompson figures into the hitting surge. Van Horn also points out that there is growth in the pitching in the second year of all-around training (weight room and technique) with Johnson handling the pitchers.
“Both of them can recruit,” Van Horn said. “Wes really knows how to train pitchers. They have gotten much stronger with their legs. Dave Jorn did a great job with them, but I always tell our players you are going to play for a lot of different coaches and try to learn something from each one. Our guys are learning some new things from Nate and Wes.”
Shaddy, who hit .279 with 8 home runs and 40 RBI last season, thinks his offense has taken a jump with a flatter swing. He said he's staying in the hitting zone longer with the barrel of the bat.
“I think a lot of guys are saying that,” Van Horn said. “Nate has given them some drills to help them with that. They might have said, 'Whoa, what's this?' But they took it to the field and now they have taken it to the scrimmages. They see it working.”
Thompson had success with power numbers at Missouri State the last three seasons, including last year when Jeremy Eierman and Jake Burger formed college baseball's top power duo with 45 home runs.
Shaddy thinks the Hogs will hit home runs this spring, not a total surprise because they hit 83 to lead the SEC last year.
Chad Spanberger led the team with 20 and signed a pro contract after his junior season. But the Hogs return eight players who combined to hit 58 homers. They have hit plenty this fall.
“We hit home runs last year and I think we'll hit home runs again this year,” Shaddy said. “Coach Thompson has helped us and we are hitting the ball hard. That's the goal. I know I'm hitting it hard.”
Van Horn said Thompson's coaching points are about hitting it hard.
“There are so many things that figure into home run totals,” Van Horn said. “How many times do you get the right weather, wind and so forth, but I see the potential in this team to hit home runs.
“Nate has brought us some new philosophies and new drills. They are learning to keep the bat in the zone. We are trying to hit it hard and try to hit it over some heads. We are concentrating on hitting it hard and getting off as many good swings as we can.
“We can put a lineup out there where everyone on the field has power to hit home runs.”
Obviously, returnees Grant Koch (13 HRs), Dominic Fletcher (12), Luke Bonfield (9) and Shaddy all had good power years in 2017. Returnees Jax Biggers, Evan Lee, Jordan McFarland and Jared Gates can hit for power, too. There's power from newcomers Cole Turney, Heston Kjerstad and TCU transfer Zach Plunkett.
Kjerstad has impressed in the scrimmages. The freshman from Amarillo, Texas, has produced big hit totals in most of the live work.
“He's had a lot of scrimmages with three and four hits,” Van Horn said. “He's hit all of our top guys. It's going to be hard to keep him out of the lineup.”
Kjerstad, an outfielder, was an early commitment for Van Horn. He's grown into an impressive prospect.
“He was 5-11, 155 when he committed,” Van Horn said. “He's 6-3, 195 now. He's grown from a leadoff man to now I'd say he's going to be in the middle of the lineup. He's a lefty hitting outfielder. He hits it hard.”
There are other freshmen who will contribute, too. As far as hitters, Van Horn has seen good things from Casey Martin, Easton Murrell and Casey Opitz. On the mound, 6-8 righthander Jackson Rutledge has turned heads – or sometimes made hitters duck.
“He's big and it gets there in a hurry because it seems like he's closer,” Van Horn said. “He throws it 92, 95 and 96. Hitters don't like to hit off him. He's just wild enough.”
Van Horn said Martin, working at second and third base, is “incredibly talented. He's got a tremendous arm, is our fastest runner and has great bat speed. I see him playing as a freshman.”
Bonfield said the freshman class seems comfortable with the speed of the college game.
“They are more comfortable than I was when I was a freshman,” Bonfield said. “They seem ready.”
It's a deep roster.
“We've got guys who could start at other SEC schools who might be role players for us,” Bonfield said. “It's the best fall I've been a part of here.”
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