Big plays show freshmen's growth
Arkansas cornerback Devin Bush returns an interception for a touchdown Saturday, April 6, 2019, during the Razorbacks' spring game in Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- University of Arkansas freshmen Trey Knox and Devin Bush turned in the day's biggest scoring plays, and the defense maintained its spring dominance during the annual Red-White game on Saturday.
The defense capitalized on an accumulation of three-and-out series, sacks and tackles for loss, then got a big boost on Bush's interception return for a touchdown to send the Red-clad defense to a 39-33 victory before an estimated crowd of 10,064 at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
The Razorbacks played in more sunshine than in the past two spring games on a warm and breezy afternoon.
"Man, what a difference a year makes, and the weather," Coach Chad Morris said, referencing the improvement after his second spring and the freezing precipitation the Razorbacks endured in their 2018 Red-White game. "We're a much-improved football team. We're better in all areas, and that's been good to see.
"I thought what you saw we've been saying all spring long, some of our young guys really stepping up and making plays."
Knox's 45-yard touchdown catch in the second quarter was the day's most spectacular individual highlight. It came after the defense had accumulated a 22-3 lead based on seven three-and-out series (for 14 points), a fourth-down stop (4) and two tackles for loss (4).
The 6-5 Knox caught a Ben Hicks' pass over the middle as cornerback Jarques McClellion went for the interception. After coming down with the pass heading right to left, Knox saw safety Kamren Curl dead ahead, gave him a jab step to the outside and cut to the inside to break into the open. Knox had clear sailing after that for the 45-yard touchdown.
"I thought it was a great catch," Morris said. "It was defended very well. Great catch. And you know to see him with the ball in his hands, he's definitely a difference-maker."
Knox finished with a game-high 57 yards on 3 catches, while Koilan Jackson added 3 catches for 43 yards, including a one-handed grab for a 16-yard pickup.
Devwah Whaley rushed for 45 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown burst in the second half. Jordon Curtis added 43 yards on 10 carries.
John Stephen Jones completed 13 of 22 passes for 112 yards and a touchdown, while Hicks hit 8 of 18 passes for 100 yards and a score.
The second-team offense had driven past midfield late in the second quarter trying to cut into a 22-10 deficit when Bush turned in the day's biggest defensive play. He stepped in front of Jones' pass for tight end Grayson Gunter and was headed for the end zone against no opposition when the play was whistled dead. Bush was still given credit for the 55-yard score, and the defense held a 30-10 lead at halftime.
"Devin broke on the ball, read the QB's eyes and he's just making plays," linebacker Grant Morgan said. "That's what he got here to do. That's what he has been doing, so I think it's just normal with him and those Louisiana boys. So it was good to see him out there making a play that he deserved."
Another couple of freshmen teamed up to thwart any late-game suspense after Matthew Phillips' 32-yard field goal pulled the offense within 32-26 with 8:24 left in the game.
Freshman defensive linemen Mataio Soli and Eric Gregory got into the backfield and logged a "sack" of quarterback Daulton Hyatt to build on the six-point spread. The defense led 39-26 by the time Jackson Salley scored on a 13-yard run to cap the scoring in the final minute.
The top defense registered three-and-outs against the No. 1 offense on its first two possessions, which falls in line with what has taken place much of spring.
"First half, I think we finished pretty good," defensive tackle McTelvin Agim said. "It felt like we kind of got lax in the middle of it, and we kind of gave away a couple of plays. But overall, especially the first half, I think we definitely finished how we wanted to finish."
Morgan agreed, crediting defensive coordinator John "Chief" Chavis with pushing the unit to get better.
"I definitely think we finished how we wanted to finish," Morgan said. "There's always room for improvement, especially with Chief. He's never satisfied. I think he's definitely got a smile on his face right now, but there is definitely room for improvement."
Morris said the offense and defense kept things basic.
"I thought as it's been for the majority of spring, the depth in our D-line, the improvement in our defensive back position has really accelerated defensively," Morris said. "I think we're much better in all phases. I think definitely you see a huge, remarkable difference defensively. So it did not surprise me to see the way they came out and some three-and-outs to start the scrimmage."
Hicks said the offense added some plays and concepts during the second half of spring drills, but things were pretty vanilla Saturday.
"Yeah, slow start obviously," Hicks said. "We've been seeing each other all spring. We know what they're gonna run; they know what we're gonna run. Sometimes it's just one of those days. At the beginning, we couldn't really get anything going."
The offense gathered steam in the second half, which was played with a running clock. The first unit got on the board quickly against the second defense, driving 72 yards in eight plays, highlighted by Whaley's 19-yard gain on a swing pass. Whaley capped the series with his 8-yard touchdown run up the gut.
Jones found Gunter wide open on a wheel route for a 23-yard touchdown in the third quarter to pull the offense within 30-23.
"We started slow, but we got things going, made some adjustments and really opened things up," offensive tackle Noah Gatlin said. "I thought we had a good day, a good day to finish it, go out of spring on a high note."
Sports on 04/07/2019
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