Scottie Bordelon is a reporter for WholeHogSports.com. A graduate of the University of Arkansas, Bordelon previously covered high school sports for the Times Record in Fort Smith and the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Springdale. He is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and Football Writers Association of America and voter for the Biletnikoff Award.
Observations from Arkansas' spring game
Arkansas quarterback John Stephen Jones (9) rolls out to pass Saturday, April 6, 2019, as defensive lineman Mataio Soli (11) defends during the Razorbacks' spring game in Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
Freshmen showing promise
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas freshman receiver Trey Knox hands down finished with the play of the day in the Razorbacks' annual Red-White game on Saturday, but he wasn't the lone newcomer to make a splash play or two.
Coach Chad Morris, on more than one occasion this spring, mentioned a pair of early enrollees - Mataio Soli and Eric Gregory - who were steadily making their mark on the defensive line and standing out in spring drills. Saturday was a continuance of that.
Gregory and Soli combined to rack up seven tackles in the scrimmage while occupying the end spots on the second-team defense. Gregory, an IMG Academy product, tallied a sack of John Stephen Jones in the second quarter and Daulton Hyatt with less than nine minutes to play. He dropped Hyatt for an 11-yard loss.
Soli brought down a walk-on running back for a loss of four yards in the second quarter and, like Gregory, got to Hyatt late in the day. Both players showed solid burst off the ball and had an opportunity to gain valuable game-like reps against Arkansas' first-team offensive line. They both showed well playing in front of an announced crowd of better than 10,000.
"I thought they were very productive in the game," McTelvin "Sosa" Agim said of Gregory and Soli. "We all have things we need to work on, but they are learning and they are making steps forward to become great players. I felt like they are doing what they are asked to do and doing what they need to do."
Morris was asked following the Red-White game about freshman defensive back Devin Bush's 55-yard pick-six off Jones just before the half, but he came back to the play Gregory made on Hyatt late as one that stood out in his mind.
"I believe these young men that have stepped on campus here are - it depends on what kind of summer they have - but we’re anticipating them being ready to go for the fall," Morris said. "You saw Eric Gregory. ... (He) made a huge sack right here toward the end against Dalton Wagner."
Morris then spoke briefly on Soli.
"He’s come in and gained 22 pounds since he’s been here and has made the best of the amount of reps that he’s gotten this spring," he said.
Bush finished the day with three tackles, the interception and a pass breakup as quarterback Ben Hicks targeted Deon Stewart over the middle of the field on second-and-medium.
Knox and Jackson impress at receiver
Morris and Arkansas' offensive coaches haven't been meager in gushing about Knox's play this spring. By all accounts, he's been one of the more consistent playmakers over the last five weeks.
Going into Saturday, knowing spring games have a tendency to be very vanilla, I thought the staff might try to find a way to keep the Knox hype train rolling and bring some excitement to the fans. Hicks targeted Knox on a deep ball down the sideline once and missed, but he did connect with the freshman on second-and-10 in the second quarter for an explosive play.
The play was well defended, but Knox kept his concentration and hauled in a ball short of the line to gain, found open space then made rising junior Kam Curl miss before turning on the jets and getting in from 45 yards out. Morris said Knox is a difference maker with the ball in his hands.
"Again, we’ve seen that," Morris said. "That’s been consistent all spring. And that’s what’s probably been impressive about Trey. A lot of times freshmen get in there and they hit a wall. And Trey has really worked hard to get through that.
"Obviously we saw a good executed play. It was defended well, we just made a play."
Knox was one of six pass catchers with three receptions, and he led the way with 57 yards. He was also targeted six times, the most of any player in the game. Koilan Jackson was pretty good, too.
Jackson has dealt with injury for most of his time at Arkansas, but he's back to 100 percent. He said as much on Twitter this past week and looked the part Saturday. He caught three balls on four targets for 43 yards. Morris and Hicks both said they hope this performance can serve as a springboard for Jackson.
"Koilan is a guy that’s had a good spring," Morris said. "Consistency has been his struggle, but he has responded as of late. I think the importance of him as we meet with all our players individually is to be consistent like he finished spring.
"It’s going to take a lot of work, but I feel like he made some really good catches today and kept the chains moving in some key moments."
Thoughts on the current state of Arkansas' offense and defense
We saw and heard a lot this spring about the defense holding firm to the championship belt for much of Arkansas' 13 practices. Saturday, the defense again had the upper hand, especially early in the scrimmage.
Ten of the offense's 19 drives maxed out at three plays, and the ball didn't advance past the initial line of scrimmage on the first nine plays of the day - six by the first-team offense. At the same time, we have to understand that several key playmakers were unavailable.
Rakeem Boyd missed all of spring practice recovering from shoulder surgery, C.J. O'Grady did not dress out Saturday because of a lower back injury that has slowed him for the last week, and receiver Mike Woods missed the final couple of weeks of drills after undergoing wrist surgery. The Razorbacks have offensive help on the way, so it's too early to make any snap judgments there.
The offensive line, which had a handful of guys miss time with sickness, injury or class conflicts, has to improve in the coming months and continue to grow to give Hicks enough time in the pocket to survey the field. A number of times Saturday, Hicks had happy feet in the pocket as a result of linemen being pushed back on their heels a bit. That contributed to him completing only 8 of 18 passes.
The running game was hit and miss, too. Devwah Whaley got some valuable reps as well, finishing with 45 yards and a score on 13 carries. He becomes a bit tougher to handle when defenses also have to account for Boyd's skillset. Those two, I think, have the potential and talent to grow to be one of the better duos in the league if the offensive line rounds into shape.
Defensively, linebacker depth is an issue. That's fairly obvious. Bumper Pool and Grant Morgan stepped up this spring, though, but even Morgan said they realized this spring just the kind of presence De'Jon Harris is and the void he leaves when not in the lineup. The progression of Andrew Parker, Gio LaFrance and Deon Edwards is big.
The secondary is filled with talent, but it's a lot of young talent without a ton of experience. Kam Curl has to continue being a leader in the secondary and others - Joe Foucha, Jarques McClellion, Buster Brown - can use big summers to head into fall camp with plenty of confidence.
To wrap up, Arkansas is already a better team than it was last season, but, like Morris has said over and over, still has a ways to go to become what it wants to be. Developing depth in key positions and getting injured bodies healed this summer would be a good start.
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