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.
Ex-Bielema players ending rocky ride; many seniors endured transition, losing ways
Arkansas linebacker De'Jon Harris is shown during a game against Colorado State on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE -- The University of Arkansas' senior poster for the football team this week is a flash point for so many stories.
The Razorbacks will honor 17 seniors before today's 11 a.m. kickoff against Western Kentucky in the on-campus finale.
Arkansas, 2-7 and eliminated from automatic bowl eligibility, will try to break a six-game losing streak. The Razorbacks haven't celebrated a victory since "Club Dub" was rocking after a 55-34 victory over Colorado State on Sept. 14.
Western Kentucky (5-4) is aiming to get bowl eligible at the expense of a Power 5 team that already has lost at home this season to San Jose State.
The UA poster, titled "2019 Seniors" followed by "Thank You" in all caps, prominently features a few main contributors from the class, most of whom survived the rugged transition from the Bret Bielema era and two down years under Coach Chad Morris.
The older players have seen a large youth movement taking place on the roster with freshmen and sophomores dotted up and down the depth chart. Nowhere will that be more prominent today than at quarterback, where redshirt freshman John Stephen Jones and true freshman KJ Jefferson have been tapped to split the game reps for the first time this season.
Morris, speaking on his radio show Wednesday, talked about receiving supportive letters and food gifts this week after a listless showing in last week's 54-24 loss to Mississippi State. He segued those remarks into a state-of-the-team summary.
"I'm built for this," said Morris, a reference to the rebuilding job he had in motion at SMU, which is now battling for a New Year's Six bowl berth. "Look, these are just some tough times that we're all going through. It's not just Chad Morris going through it. We've got fans that are going through it. Our university's going through it. Our football program's going through it.
"It's tough times right now, but there are some positives out of this. There's a lot of young guys that are getting incredible experience that is eventually going to pay off. So the best is yet to come, and there's still going to be some great days this year."
The veterans would like to see that, and to inject hope into a fan base that has been stewing and souring for most of the past eight years.
Fifth-year senior Jamario Bell, who was on winning Bielema teams in 2015 and 2016, was asked what he'd like to see from the fans Saturday.
"I just want the fans -- I know it's tough for the fans," Bell said. "We just want all the fans to come out because this senior class -- the whole team, whole organization, strength staff, coaching staff, everyone -- we really want to come out and win. We're trying. We're working hard."
Senior linebacker De'Jon Harris said the Razorbacks need to show the fans something.
"I would just like to give the fans the best show," Harris said. "It's not what we want to see from the fans, it's what the fans want to see from us. I just want to go out there and put the best thing on the field and try to turn this thing around as fast as we can."
Morris and his staff have to be feeling pressure to show improvement down the stretch in Year Two with the Razorbacks 4-17 under their watch.
Defensive tackle McTelvin Agim, a senior captain along with Harris and T.J. Smith, said the Razorbacks are understandably building for next year.
"If you're coming back, you're building for next year, you're building with coaches for next year, you're setting the foundation right now," Agim said. "So you've got three games to basically put it all on the line and get ready for the next season."
Morris, asked what he'd tell Arkansas fans regarding today's game, said the seniors deserve a stirring final on-campus game.
"They keep coming back and coming to work and giving everything they've got," he said. "They deserve everybody's best. They deserve every one of our staff, coaches, underclassmen. They deserve their best. Our fans, come out and support them. Again they are pouring their heart and soul out."
Featured front and center on the senior poster are Agim, Harris and kicker Connor Limpert, the most productive players from the class who spent their entire career with the Razorbacks.
"It went by fast, man," said Harris, who needs 25 tackles to have his third consecutive 100-tackle season. "I was ... kind of reminiscing about when I first got here and when I basically started playing my sophomore year. I just tried to tell the young guys to take advantage of every opportunity y'all get, because it's going to go by fast, especially when you're playing and you don't redshirt."
The players recruited by the Bielema staff have been dwindling since the arrival of Morris and his staff, who came on board in December of 2017, the first year the NCAA allowed December signing periods.
"I think it's like four or five of us that's actually playing," said Harris, referencing the seniors. "The rest of them were redshirted or they got hurt."
The program is en route to its third consecutive losing season.
"A lot of down ones," Agim said. "I probably had one up one my freshman year. But it's still been good. It's still a blessing. I wouldn't change it for the world."
The Bielema era crew dropped by two last week, with left tackle Colton Jackson medically retiring from football and standout tight end Cheyenne O'Grady mutually agreeing with Morris to end his star-crossed college career.
Jackson is included in the poster. O'Grady is not. Neither is grad transfer quarterback Ben Hicks, who opened the season as the starter but has yielded along with junior transfer Nick Starkel to Jones and Jefferson. Hicks elected to not be involved in senior day ceremonies, a team spokesman said.
The Razorbacks have lost at least 33 scholarship players who had eligibility remaining since Bielema's departure.
One of them is Ty Storey, the Charleston High School product who was in the program for four years before leaving for Western Kentucky as a graduate transfer. He'll start for the Hilltoppers today.
Western Kentucky is only a 1.5-point underdog, meaning the Hilltoppers would likely be favored at a neutral site.
"It's just an added bonus that it's an SEC opponent and playing a Power 5 school," Western Kentucky Coach Tyson Helton said about the game. "And if you can go down there and get a win, it says a lot about your program.
"I expect them to give us everything they've got. It's going to be a great challenge for us. They're a very talented and young football team. You do see where they have a lot of talent, though. They took Texas A&M to the stretch in Dallas and really had an opportunity to win that game."
For Arkansas, consistent play and depth have been issues at many positions, adding to the struggles experienced by the Arkansas veterans.
"They've been through a lot," offensive coordinator Joe Craddock said. "They've been through a coaching change. They've been through some hard times. They've given us everything they've got. A lot of buy-in by those guys. I can't thank them enough for what they've done."
Other significant contributors in the class of seniors are tailback Devwah Whaley, defensive tackle and team captain T.J. Smith, Bell, offensive guard Austin Capps, defensive end Gabe Richardson, and tight ends Chase Harrell and Hayden Johnson.
The class has a 15-31 record (.326) in the past four seasons. Their winning record of 7-6 in 2016 was dampened by giving up two big leads in their last two games against Missouri and in the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech.
It has felt like a continual slide since then.
WESTERN KENTUCKY AT ARKANSAS
WHEN 11 a.m.
WHERE Reynolds Razorback Stadium, Fayetteville
RECORDS Western Kentucky 5-4; Arkansas 2-7
LINE Arkansas by 1 1/2
COACHES Ty Helton (5-4 in first season at WKU and overall); Chad Morris (4-17 in second season at Arkansas, 18-39 in fifth season overall)
SERIES First meeting
TV SEC Network
RADIO Razorback Sports Network
Sports on 11/09/2019
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