Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
ARKANSAS POSITION ANALYSIS SAFETIES:
Razorbacks lacking safeties in numbers
Arkansas safety Kamren Curl (2) runs through a drill Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, during practice at the university practice facility in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- The youth movement on the University of Arkansas' football roster is probably best embodied at safety.
The projected starters are junior Kamren Curl and sophomore Joe Foucha, who both turned 20 in the spring. Behind them are sophomore Myles Mason, who played sparingly last year; true freshman Jalen Catalon; and a host of walk-on players led by senior Brenden Young.
A position that has struggled with depth issues for many years enters another fall with the same questions looming.
"We have some young guys. Can we get them ready to play as coaches?" defensive coordinator John Chavis asked about the secondary prior to camp.
"We're young, but there's talent back there and the guys are willing learners," safeties coach Ron Cooper said.
Curl, a rangy 6-2, 204-pounder, is the quarterback in the secondary, starting his second season at strong safety. He has 22 starting assignments under his belt, more than he has years on this planet.
Curl was thrown into the fray in his first game as a Razorback, entering at cornerback in the 2017 season opener against Florida A&M after an injury to Ryan Pulley. He made 11 consecutive starts at corner before switching to safety in the spring of 2018.
"I feel like I'm a lot better, because you get thrown into that situation, you have to grow up or you're going to lose your spot," Curl said of the sudden change of circumstances in 2017. "So that's what I had to do, grow up."
Curl learned beside Santos Ramirez last season, and now he's the most experienced player in the starting lineup in the Arkansas secondary.
"I try to lead the guys by example and vocally because they're going to come to me and ask questions, so I have to be on top of my game, and that's helped me become a better player," Curl said.
Cooper said Curl's understanding of every position in the secondary gives him a valuable perspective.
"He understands our calls," Cooper said. "He understands how to disguise better. He'll help the guys around him because he understands it totally. Where last year he had Santos back there with him and they both were sort of learning.
"Kam knows it completely now, and the other two who were here in the spring -- Joe and Myles -- know it just as well."
Curl started the first 11 games of 2018 and amassed 53 tackles to rank fourth on the team, but he was suspended for the season finale at Missouri after he and Ryan Pulley were caught socializing with members of the Mississippi State spirit squad the week before.
"He's a defensive back, and defensive backs always need to be great about having amnesia," Cooper said. "You better be able to forget, because there's going to be things that happen.
"We haven't even talked about it. I know he learned from it. He was just a young kid last year. I'm excited to see him move forward."
Curl's absence on a cold, rainy day in Columbia, Mo., gave Foucha an opening to make his first college start.
"Last year was for me to get my feet wet," Foucha said. "I'm more confident this year. I'm reading things better this year. I can read the tight end better, so this year for me is going to be cocky.
"I'm going to be confident this year. It's not going to be like last year when I was a little bit nervous."
Curl said critics who doubt the Arkansas secondary need to pay attention.
"They can think that because we are inexperienced, but we've got guys who can play, guys with a chip on their shoulder that are trying to prove themselves," Curl said. "So they have to sit back and watch."
The Razorbacks need to make strides in tackling and not allowing big pass plays after they gave up chunk plays at an alarming rate. Arkansas tied for 116th in the country in giving up 26 pass plays of 30 or more yards.
Curl said after one year at safety, he's ready to apply more film study and nuances he's learned onto the field.
"I know I'm more confident in the checks and stuff," he said. "Being with coach Coop, he taught me the checks, and it's coming faster to me and the game is moving slower, so that's good."
On the moving faster front, there's Catalon, who had two pick-sixes during the first full week of camp. The first stands out because it prompted the sideline sprint by Chavis to celebrate at the goal line with the 5-10, 196-pound Catalon, whom Coach Chad Morris described as one of the five best Texas high school players he's ever seen.
"He's very talented, a good tackler," Cooper said. "He's feisty, and he understands the game. He's smart. He's got great quickness and he can play."
Foucha won the team's "PAT" award for the month, which is given for exceptional passion, attitude and trust.
Morris has raved about the sophomore throughout camp.
"Joe's had a great camp," he said. "He's totally changed his body and his attitude toward just wanting to be the best he can be, so great young man, proud for him."
RETURNING STARTERS Kamren Curl (11 starts in 2018)
LOSSES Santos Ramirez (12), Micahh Smith (moved to CB), Ryder Lucas
WHO’S BACK Joe Foucha (1), Myles Mason
WHO’S NEW Jalen Catalon
WALK-ONS Brenden Young, Matt Berry, Martaveous Brown, Cameron Vail
ANALYSIS The Razorbacks are super thin at the two safety spots, so keeping the top contributors at these positions healthy is a must. Curl’s grasp of the schemes and checks, and his ability to disguise coverages and calls have improved immeasurably for the leader of the secondary. He has 22 starts for the Hogs, split evenly at corner and strong safety. Foucha, a hard-hitting sophomore, takes the free safety spot held by Ramirez last year. Mason’s reps will go up as a top backup, and Catalon, who flashed in camp, should contribute as a true freshman.
Sports on 08/22/2019
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