Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and its All-America Committee, voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
Clay Henry's Top 10 Keys: Sometimes a few freshmen OK
Treylon Burks, Arkansas wide receiver, makes a catch under pressure from Cameron Dantzler, Mississippi State cornerback, in the fourth quarter Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
Until 1972 freshmen were not eligible in college football. Sophomores would often redshirt.
So it was unusual when the great 1964 Arkansas defense had two true sophomore starters, but they were both great players. Loyd Phillips started at tackle and would later win the Outland Trophy. Harry Jones started at free safety. They were both first round draft picks in 1967.
In today’s world, they probably would play as true freshmen and not be around as fourth-year seniors. They’d be in the NFL. They were that good.
Phillips played in a rage from sideline to sideline as a tall, rangy defensive tackle, probably an end in today’s schemes.
Jones was recruited to play quarterback, but had to play defense to get on the field with Fred Marshall and Jon Brittenum stacked ahead. Eventually, Jones was a two-year star at wingback, too.
A big man with incredible speed, Jones would still be the perfect free safety in today’s game.
The angle today is the old coaching adage of the 1960s that you would lose a game for every true sophomore you started. Obviously, the 1964 Razorbacks went 11-0, proving that a myth. They pitched five shutouts to end the regular season.
So, as they say, youth will be served — if it’s top quality. If it’s not, then it’s a bad idea even in today’s game where more and more great freshmen will play. Just don’t do that too much. A man or two here or there — if they are freshmen like Treylon Burks or Trey Knox — will not hurt you.
But, playing a lot of young ones will still get you beat. Sadly, not playing them and getting beat is worse.
Either way, losing by 30 points seven times in 21 games, as second-year Arkansas coach Chad Morris has done, is painful no matter if it’s young or old doing the playing.
That’s where Morris and his staff find themselves this week as Western Kentucky comes to town in what has to be the perfect bad storm.
The Hilltoppers are excited, especially their quarterback, former Razorback Ty Storey. They are going to give maximum effort. Can the Hogs do the same?
Somehow they have to find more effort than what most have given of late. To me, that’s the essence of coaching and what I’ll look for Saturday.
Hopefully, the youngsters on the UA roster are excited and will play hard. The Hogs are going to play most of their young ones, especially at quarterback. Redshirt freshman John Stephen Jones will start and KJ Jefferson will play a lot, too.
Some hope Jefferson plays the most. I can make an argument for giving Jefferson all of the snaps. He may be the most talented player on the field, a generational do-it-all prospect as much like Cam Newton as any Arkansas quarterback ever.
In fact, if you want to make a comparison to overall best athlete ever at Arkansas, the two I’d start with first would be Harry Jones and Darren McFadden. Both had the speed to go with the big body.
Jefferson is 6-3, 228. John Stephen Jones is listed at 5-11, 199, but most think those measurements were in cleats standing on concrete. He’s not that tall.
I like watching Jones. He’s a gamer, the ultimate competitor. He’s not afraid and the team will follow him.
Right now, that’s as important as playing the talented freshmen. Youthful players need someone to follow.
But I’ve never bought the idea of holding Jefferson. After seeing him run and throw in an August practice, it was clear that at some point the team would need him.
They need him the same way the 2001 Razorbacks needed Matt Jones. Zak Clark was a better passer, but the option keepers by Jones changed the offense. It made things easier for the offensive line.
That’s the reason John Stephen Jones and Jefferson seem to be the right answers for this offense. The offensive line struggled to protect passers Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel.
But, an option runner doesn’t need so much pass protection. He’s operating the run-pass options, too. And, even Rakeem Boyd saw in just a few plays that the running quarterback gave him a little more room. He said it after the Mississippi State game.
You have to be able to throw a little or the defense will play a nine-man front, even against the spread. But it looked like Jones and Jefferson can throw it some.
It seems to fit with the Morris scheme, too.
That’s the root of the frustration with so many Arkansas fans. Why did it take so long?
Arkansas Starters by Class Since 2008
It’s the old question: When do you pull the plug on more experienced players? And, it’s even tougher when the position is quarterback. You risk ruining a young player if it’s too soon.
Obviously, the decision was too late. Hicks and Starkel couldn’t operate with the extreme lack of protection. About the only Arkansas quarterback who could have subbed for them and handled that collapsing pocket might have been Brandon Allen.
Allen delivered on-target passes while getting slammed to the turf. And, he kept on plugging even when his truck was set on fire or egged. Yes, it’s a cruel world, this SEC football business.
And, that’s what it is, a massive business.
That’s why it’s best to play your best players in a hurry. An old coach told me this fall that you don’t want to redshirt a good one to help out the coach after you. Play them and play them in a hurry.
There was an interesting request on a talk radio show recently. I was told that the next Arkansas coach — and there is no current opening — needs to be “one who is really good with young players.”
It should be an easy find. They are all out of work right now.
There is some excitement about seeing more young ones against Western Kentucky. Jalen Catalon and Malik Chavis may get more snaps in the secondary. Brady Latham may get some snaps in the offensive line.
That leads us into the keys to victory against Western Kentucky. Kickoff is at 11 a.m. Saturday.
Can the Hogs play clean and well while also cranking up the number of plays for the freshmen? That’s a hard feat to accomplish.
The depth chart released by Arkansas this week — and this includes as many as three at certain positions — lists 13 true freshmen. There are four more redshirt freshmen. That’s 17 freshmen in the top 47.
If you scan the entire Arkansas roster, there are few teams listing more freshmen. The Razorbacks list 53 as either freshmen or redshirt freshmen. Nebraska has the most with 78. Oklahoma State is next with 72.
But here’s a sobering thought: Alabama (57) and Georgia (53) are also among the leaders in listing the most freshmen.
Arkansas has played 31 freshmen this year, including 20 true freshmen.
Western Kentucky makes it tough on the media by not publishing an actual depth chart. They list the entire offensive line numerically, but not by actual position.
But by looking at the weekly starters and the roster, the likely starters can be obtained, just not the backups. The Hilltoppers did not start a single freshman last week in the loss to Florida Atlantic.
This is the last home game in Fayetteville for 17 seniors. The defensive line is where most of them play significant minutes. That would be tackles McTelvin Agim and T. J. Smith, along with ends Gabe Richardson and Jamario Bell.
Offensively, the only true starter is left guard Austin Capps, back this week after missing the Alabama and Mississippi State games with a concussion. Tight end Chase Harrell could start in some packages. Running back Devwah Whaley has been a starter at times. Kicker Connor Limpert is another significant senior.
Morris was asked about the seniors to start the week. Some have played a lot of football for the Hogs, but not seen much team success.
“I think they are very gritty,” Morris said. “They’ve been tough and had a lot to overcome. A lot of change has happened in their time here. When you can set examples and play at the level of a (De’Jon) Harris and Sosa Agim, it’s inspiring to see. They want to leave their legacy.
Ty Storey opened the season on the bench, but because of injury has been the starter for the last six games. He led four straight victories before the Hilltoppers lost to Marshall and Florida Atlantic the last two weeks.
Storey has completed 141 of 202 passes for 1,477 yards. He’s got seven TDs against just five interceptions. The plan has been simple: get the ball off quickly and in front of the defense and let the receivers try to make yards after the catch.
Morris said it’s been impressive to watch.
“Ty does a good job getting the ball underneath to receivers, and they mix up the run and the pass,” Morris said. “They do some quick-game bubble screens and do a good job moving the chains.”
Defensive coordinator John Chavis was asked if knowing Storey helps in preparation.
“There is no advantage with me being around him,” Chavis said. “He is a strong, strong competitor. It took a lot of courage for him to play last year. We’re going to feel like we have a chance. We’re going to have a plan that’s good enough.”
That brings us to the big key in the game. It’s probably not preparation. It’s effort.
Experience is important and so is the plan. Most believe you can scheme a victory.
But the biggest key is effort. Will the Hogs play hard? They’ve been up and down all season, but mostly down after losing leads against Texas A&M and Kentucky in back-to-back games.
The intensity hasn’t been nearly the same since blowing a 13-0 lead against Kentucky.
Some have fought every week. Harris leads the SEC in tackles with 75. He has 345 for his career, eighth best on school charts. Clearly, Morris hopes everyone else matches Harris this week.
“Scoota Harris played relentless,” he said. “He sold out every play, and it was inspiring. When your best player sells out, that sets the standard for how we play. He is one of 17 seniors we will honor on Saturday. It will be an emotional day for those guys.”
It can’t be minimized. It’s the essence of coaching, but can the Hogs hold on to the rope for the last three games with so much negativity over so many crushing defeats?
It’s tough to maintain effort when the losses are mounting. Morris was asked about that.
“When you consider and look at the entire season, when over half your starters are freshmen and sophomores, you’re going to have some growing pains and tough times,” he said. “That’s no excuse for where we’re at right now.
“Treylon Burks is playing at an incredibly high level. I used him as an example, like Harris, in front of the team last night. With the number of young players playing, there’s no one more disappointed in our performance than the players and staff.”
The Jefferson Package
How much can KJ Jefferson handle? It may not matter to anyone else, but the question did come up with offensive coordinator Joe Craddock from the media on Monday. Can he play more than last week when he got the final seven snaps?
“We’d like to get him in there earlier than last week,” Craddock said. “We’ll stick with the guy who gives us the best chance to win.”
Obviously, Jefferson spent most of the season on the scout team with Hicks, Starkel and Jones getting the practice time with the first and second teams. But that changed during the open week following the Texas A&M loss.
“The bye week was huge for him,” Craddock said. “He got a lot of reps. He’s been in all of my meetings and he’s coming along. We can definitely expand his package, for sure.”
Can the Hogs get off to a fast start and create some momentum? They’ve had none since the Kentucky game and didn’t keep that for long.
Arkansas has won the coin toss in seven of nine games. What it’s done with that decision has varied. The decision was to defer to the second half six times. Four times the opposition scored on that possession. The Hogs have taken the ball twice and failed to score both times. They did miss a field goal against Texas A&M.
In six of nine games, the Hogs have allowed points on the opponent’s first possession. So what do you do, take the ball or defer?
Either way, the Hogs need something good to happen early and Craddock knows it.
“We had seven plays in the first quarter last week and that is not acceptable,” Craddock said. “We have to get in the end zone early and often. We can’t get behind the 8-ball, so to speak.”
Who will show up for an 11 a.m. kickoff? That’s something that was brought up to Morris. It was suggested — and not just by Morris — that the fans might like to see the youngsters.
“I think the quarterbacks can energize the crowd,” he said. “Razorback fans, they love the Hogs. That is evident. I know it’s an 11 a.m. kick, but I expect it to be good. They’ll get to see the two young guys at QB and all the other young guys.”
One thing that seemed obvious, they were ready to see the young quarterbacks earlier than maybe the coaches thought. The cheers for both Jones and Young were loud and followed boos when Hicks came onto the field in the second quarter when there had been three-and-outs to start the game.
Clearly, it’s not a key, but it’s noteworthy. While there have been some key penalties that cost points (most notably against Ole Miss), the Hogs have been clean for the most part.
In fact, officials may have an easy day. Arkansas and Western Kentucky are among the least-penalized teams in the FBS. Arkansas leads the SEC and is 27th nationally with just 44 penalties. The Hilltoppers are even cleaner. They have been called for just 40, 12th fewest in the nation.
If you want to them by yards penalized, the Hogs are even better, with just 367 yards stepped off, 22nd in the nation. The Hilltoppers have given up 369 yards, 22nd.
Arkansas did not have a penalty in one game this year, at Alabama. It was the first time since 1997 that the Hogs have made it through a game without a penalty. That was Danny Ford’s last season, in the season opener against Louisiana-Monroe.
Not So Obscure
This is another way to say get the ball to Treylon Burks. He can handle it.
Well, he’s got the hands to handle about anything. Fans marveled at his method at handling punts. He catches them at eye level instead of cradling them into his chest like most punt returners. Coaches at all levels have tried to change that, but eventually leave him alone.
So how does he do it? He’s got unusually large hands, even for the best at his position, wide receiver.
Hand size as far as sports go is measured from thumb to pinky finger. Burks’ hands measure at 10.25 inches. He wears size 5XL gloves.
Just for reference, here are some other hand sizes: Houston Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins, 10.1; Cleveland Browns receiver Odell Beckham, 10; Atlanta Falcon receiver Julio Jones, 9.75; former NBA star Shaquille O’Neal, 11.75.
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