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.
UA battle for 'belt' moves to scrimmage
Arkansas coach Chad Morris is shown during practice Saturday, March 9, 2019, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- The rain stopped, the sun broke through, and the bitter cold snap ended for the University of Arkansas' spring football scrimmage Saturday morning.
The Razorbacks still had to contend with brisk, swirling winds during their roughly 100-play scrimmage at Reynolds Razorback Stadium before a large crowd of top prospects, their families and former players.
The first offensive unit, led by senior quarterback Ben Hicks and tailbacks Devwah Whaley and Chase Hayden, started the day strong in an attempt to win back the "championship belt" that has become a practice-day incentive for each side of the ball.
The belt is won through three major components: winning on first down, third down and in the turnover category. The defense claimed it in Thursday's fourth spring practice and appeared to retain it Saturday due to the turnover category.
"We turned the ball over three times, so that kinda hurt," said Hicks, who said the lost balls came on two fumbles and a bungled snap.
Linebacker Grant Morgan and defensive end Jamario Bell said the first-team defense accounted for one of the takeaways, and the second unit recovered two fumbles.
"If you get three turnovers or more, it trumps no matter what else," Morgan said of the criteria for winning the belt.
Hicks completed a short pass on the first play of the open scrimmage. Whaley then took a read option handoff at left tackle and broke through the secondary for a 40-plus yard gain. Safety Joe Foucha got the angle on Whaley and forced him out of bounds on the right sideline.
Hayden took the next snap at left guard, broke clean into the second level and went up the middle for a 25-yard touchdown.
"We surely didn't start it the way you want to start a ballgame," defensive coordinator John Chavis said.
"I thought our O-line did a good job of blocking," offensive coordinator Joe Craddock said. "I probably could have scored on two of those. They were just big holes."
Whaley said the big runs were created by great work up front, but he wasn't sure Craddock could have scored on them.
"He probably would have got caught after about 10 yards," Whaley said.
The media viewed the first 45 minutes of the practice, which included about 10-15 minutes of open scrimmage work with live tackling.
The second defense looked to have the edge over its counterparts.
Freshman defensive end Eric Gregory outworked junior-college transfer Chibueze Nwanna at right tackle for a "sack" of John Stephen Jones on the second snap of the period. A few snaps later, Gregory broke through again and got a two-hand touch on Jones, who kept scrambling and hit Koilan Jackson with a short pass.
Linebacker Deon Edwards and defensive back Gregory Brooks were credited with fumble recoveries, and one first-team defender notched a fumble recovery, but Bell and Morgan couldn't recall who fell on the ball.
Trey Knox, the 6-5 early enrollee, caught a screen pass from Hicks that broke for a touchdown later in the workout.
"It was a little screen play," Hicks said. "I just dished it to him pretty early, the offensive line got out and was able to get their hands inside and block downfield, and Trey was able to find his way into the end zone. We called that play like three or four times and finally got one to crease a little bit."
Chavis said the early defensive work was disappointing.
"I'm glad it was a scrimmage," Chavis said. "We had a miscue on the first play, and then I don't know what happened on the next play, but we gave up two long runs. Those are things that we have to eliminate if we ever want to become a good defensive football team."
Asked whether the defense improved after the first couple of possessions, Chavis said, "Oh yeah, there's no doubt.
"But the thing is, you can't give someone momentum. We had some good moments, but obviously you want to start fast and you want to finish fast."
Craddock said the quarterbacks and receivers had a solid day in the strong wind, and he sensed the first- and third-down efficiency went up in the scrimmage.
"The biggest thing is, we would have won the belt a couple of times I believe, but we've just got to do a better job of taking care of the football," he said. "Our twos are turning the ball over a little bit too much, and we're counting that. So we've got to be as good a group of offense as we can, try to find our best 22. We've got to do a better job taking care of the ball, and we'll win the belt.
"But I thought today was one of our better days offensively. I thought there were some big holes in there. I thought we made some good throws, and we did some good things. We've got to continue to strain some guys to finish drives."
Bell, a senior who started at end along with Gabe Richardson, said the first unit settled in after the alarming start.
"For the first scrimmage, it was a pretty good day," Bell said. "We came out the first part and we were a little too energized. We had to settle down and hone in on what we were doing.
"But ... I felt like we got better as a whole defense, offense, everything. We got the turnover belt for the third day in a row, so we did pretty good. We're getting better and are a lot better than we were last year at this time."
Sports on 03/10/2019
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