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: Arkansas vs. Auburn
Arkansas linebacker Bumper Pool is shown during a game against Colorado State on Saturday, Sept. 14, 2019, in Fayetteville.
Watching the likes of Darren McFadden, Marcus Monk, Casey Dick, Matt Jones, Felix Jones and many others as a youngster, Bumper Pool told his father, “I want to be a Razorback and run through the ‘A’ like them.”
Running through the ‘A’ seemed like a lofty goal for a 10-year-old, but Bumper got a strong correction from his father. Even then, Jeff Pool wanted him to think much higher.
“He sure did,” Bumper said. “He told me, ‘No, you don’t want to just run through the ‘A.’ You want to be a dominant player.’ He said you don’t just want to be part of the team.”
Jeff Pool laughed at that reminder in a phone interview just a few hours after his son told that story.
“I’d forgotten that,” Jeff said. “He was just a kid, but I kept telling him, ‘Son, you are going to run through that ‘A.’ Get past that. You want to make sure you are the guy who helps your team and coaches get wins.’ That’s what I wanted him to focus on.”
Bumper Pool is focused on that now. He’s fighting for the team lead in tackles as a sophomore starter at inside linebacker. He played 10 games as a true freshman, starting four times in place of the injured Dre Greenlaw.
Pool recorded 10 tackles at Kentucky to give him 23 in three SEC games. He has 40 for the season, just behind leaders De’Jon Harris and Kamren Curl, both with 44.
Pool had offers from all over the country as a four-star prospect at Lovejoy High School. His hometown is Lucas, near the McKinney/Allen area in North Texas.
It came down to Michigan, Alabama and a few other top 10 schools before he fulfilled his dream in picking Arkansas, where many in his family attended college.
“It was for me,” Pool said of his dreams. “It was every since I started playing football. I wanted to be a part of being a Razorback.”
Older sister Maddie beat him to Arkansas and works in the football recruiting offices. They followed their father to Arkansas.
“I told him to make his own decision,” Jeff said. “But he made the right decision.
“He took a lot of visits, but the only time I was nervous was when he went to Michigan. They did a really good job in his recruitment.
“The key was that Arkansas was home to him. He’d been going to games there since he was a baby. And, he’s unique in that he did it for others, to help all those young kids that he’s met through the years. He wants to help Arkansas win for them and win for the entire state.”
And, for the Pool family, too.
“My dad is from Stamps and he went there in the ‘60s,” Jeff said. “I have twin sisters and they went there after me. I have a niece and nephew he went, and then, of course, Maddie.”
Maddie is working on her Masters at Arkansas. But she also checks on little brother. He got home in the wee hours of the night after the trip to Kentucky to find pumpkin bread on his kitchen counter.
“She’s like my second mom,” Bumper said. “If I’m sick, she is right there to check on me.”
There was little doubt Maddie – then working in Bret Bielema’s office of recruiters – was among the first Arkansas staffers making sure Bumper picked Arkansas.
“Of course, she was,” Bumper said. “But my dad did most of the recruiting.”
About Maddie, Bumper said matter of factly, “She is the hardest worker in the family, just a perfectionist.”
She’s got to go a bit to beat Bumper. In the last two years, he’s drawn consistent praise from defensive coordinator John Chavis, the UA linebackers coach. Chavis said Pool’s work ethic is top notch. And, he’s been impressed with his progress since arriving at midterm after graduating from high school early.
“Pool is a very talented young man, and we expect him to get better,” Chavis said after the Kentucky game. “He played very passionate and made a lot of plays. It would have been better if we had won, but I was excited about the way he played.”
Pool made an incredible 166 tackles as a senior at Lovejoy. He was a four-year regular with over 300 tackles. He played quarterback in his early days, but was excited about concentrating on defense when approached about possible playing time ahead of his freshman season.
“Our coaches told me I could make varsity as a freshman if I’d move to linebacker,” he said. “One day into playing defense, it was obvious that I loved it. I never worked at quarterback after that.”
Well, that’s not altogether true. Pool was inserted as the Wildcat quarterback midway through his senior year when Lovejoy turned around a 0-6 start with six straight victories, including a playoff run.
“That was a lot of fun,” Pool said. “It was mainly short yardage.”
There was a nine-carry night in a victory over Forney. He rushed for 51 yards and two touchdowns.
Jeff marveled at his son’s comments after that game.
“His knowledge of the linebacker position was key,” Jeff said. “He told me that he saw the linebacker taking his position just a step the wrong way. He said, ‘Dad, I knew when I saw him that if he didn’t move back, I was going 45 yards for a touchdown.’ And, that’s what he did.”
Most suspected he’d make an immediate impact at Arkansas with linebacker depth an issue, but that first spring was rough. A bout with mononucleosis was the main problem.
“I didn’t know it was mono,” he said. “I just thought I was having a tough transition to college football. I thought to myself, ‘This is a lot different than high school, just super hard.’”
It probably was, but there was a better evaluation when what was first believed to be the flu was diagnosed as mono.
“I was sick and figured I’d get better,” he said. “I just thought college is just a little tougher than I expected.
“It was actually a relief when they figured out it was mono. I was just staying tired. I thought everyone else was tired, too.”
When he came back in the fall, Pool had a quick gear and the speed that most remembered from high school. And, he was much stronger as his 6-2 frame filled out.
Still, he’s playing much faster this year, with another year in the Chavis system under his belt.
“It’s probably mental and physical,” Pool said. “Getting another offseason program behind me helped, but learning the little things in the defense helped.”
The mental aspect has never been questioned. Pool’s toughness was evident when he took on wrestling as a high school sophomore and was an instant winner.
“Our linebackers coach at Lovejoy was also the wrestling coach,” Pool said. “He told me it would help me in football.”
It did. Hand strength increased and so did mental toughness.
“Wrestling practices were the worst thing I ever did,” he said. “Wrestling uses every muscle in your body.
“What you learn is that you keep fighting or you lose. There is nothing else I’ve done that is like wrestling.”
Jeff Pool said there was some concern when Bumper got into wrestling.
“He’d never done it at all, and then he was almost immediately in a match,” Jeff said. “We talked to a few parents and they said, ‘Don’t worry, no one gets hurt.’”
Pool proved that a myth in the first match.
“I just dove in on a take-down attempt and the guy’s tibia snapped,” Bumper said.
Jeff said, “Laurie and I looked at each other and said, ‘We thought nobody gets hurt.’ Bumper didn’t know much about it and he’d get in trouble sometimes for just picking someone up and throwing them down. But a lot of good things came out of wrestling.”
The mind games played in wrestling matches come into play in football.
“My coach told me that wrestling teaches you to take comfort in your darkest place. So, when it’s late in a (football) game and it’s really tough, I find my edge that I’ve been in those dark places. I take pride in that.”
For someone who grew up calling the Hogs, there is great pride in wearing the Razorback uniform.
“I was always in awe of the Razorback players who I knew,” he said.
And, he knew some intimately. Jeff Pool has been close to Steve Dick, father of former Arkansas quarterbacks Casey and Nathan Dick, for years.
“Steve and I played softball together,” Jeff said. “My brother and I sponsored the baseball teams Casey and Nathan played on as little guys.
“Casey and Nathan’s mom, Mary Ellen, was the teacher where Maddie and Bumper went to school, and she’d just take them home and babysit them. At some point, Casey and Nathan would babysit for us, too.
“The impact that those two boys had on my kids was incredible. They were great role models. For them to come into the room as Arkansas Razorback quarterbacks and the way they carried themselves really put them in awe.
“Of course, Casey is head coach at Fayetteville (High School) now. He still stays in contact with Bumper and gives him calls. He’ll do a great job there.”
That’s what everyone says about Bumper Pool. He’s a little like his sister that he’s going to zone into becoming perfect at anything he tries.
Most don’t know that Pool was a solid player on his high school golf team and dabbled in track, too. There’s probably no one on the UA football team who can beat him on a consistent basis in golf.
“Jack Lindsey and I are close when we play,” Pool said. “I was probably a seven handicap at the end of the summer. There were three or four of us who played three times a week during the past summer.
“Golf was a spring sport in high school, so I played in the matches. The best I did in a school match was 77. I shot even once on our local course in McKinney.”
Most don’t know that Pool’s legal name really is Bumper. But that didn’t happen until he was 16.
Bumper’s mom, Laurie, was against putting Bumper on the birth certificate, Jeff’s demand.
“I had always said if I ever had a son, I would name him Bumper,” Jeff said. “I’d played bumper pool as a kid and that’s when I started telling people it should be a name.
“Over and over people would say, ‘Yeah, you won’t do that.’ Our first was Maddie, so that wasn’t an option. But that’s what I wanted to do when our second was a boy.”
Laurie wouldn’t do it.
“She worried what it would be like as a little kid to be called Bumper,” Jeff said. “So we made a deal, we’d put my dad’s name on the birth certificate, James Morris. That’s a formal, southern name. But we’d call him Bumper.”
The deal would be, if it stuck, Bumper would get a chance to make a legal name change when he turned 16.
“Of course, it stuck,” Jeff said. “I knew it was going to be fine when his grandmother held him for the first time and she said, ‘Oh, there’s little Bumper!’ We were in.”
The name is all Bumper ever knew.
“My teachers called me Bumper, everyone did,” he said. “So when I turned 16, I went in front of a judge and got it changed. I had to get my passport changed, my ID changed and my social security card changed. It was a hassle, but it was pretty neat, too.”
There are always doubters.
“I came on my visit to The Catfish Hole and I introduced myself to some girls,” he said. “One of them said, ‘So we meet and the first thing you do is tell a lie.’
“What I hear every time, ‘Your name is what?’ It’s OK. I love my name.”
It’s no lie. And, Pool said it’s no lie that the attitude is still strong within the Arkansas football team.
“Our culture is so different than last year,” Pool said. “We are close to getting there. Last year, there was no light at the end of the tunnel.”
It was truly a dark place.
“We just know that we are going to get there now,” he said. “We just know we have to keep working and it is going to happen. We’ve been through so much.
“I know there are naysayers out there. They have a right to their opinion and we know that they want us to be successful. We are close and now we just have to finish the game.”
That brings us to the keys to victory for the 11 a.m. game with Auburn. Pool can describe them as well as anyone.
Everyone knows the Hogs have lost 14 straight SEC games, including 11 straight under Morris. Can they hold together amid all the losses?
“This thing is going to turn,” Morris said. “It’s turned at my previous stops. The only way it happens is if you put your head down and keep swinging. We’re going to get out of this corner we’re in, but it’s not easy and it’s not going to get any easier. We’re not going to flinch or back down. Our message is we’re all in this together. It’s all of us. Just put your head down and work.”
Chavis said they can when he met with the media on Monday.
“We have to grow together,” Chavis said. “Heck, we have to be a family. We take a lot of pride in talking about that and being that. It’s not going to splinter. There’s times in life when you want to quit and give up, but our guys will not quit or give up.
Pool said he’s learned a lot from Chavis, the man he calls “a genius” of a coach.
“He’s hard on us,” Pool said. “He knows it’s the little things that make the difference. He doesn’t give us any slack. He’s a genius and we are learning from him.”
Auburn goes with Bo Nix, a true freshman, at quarterback. For Arkansas, whether it’s Nick Starkel or Ben Hicks is up for speculation. Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock indicate a decision will be made late in the week.
“We’re going to go back and evaluate Ben and Nick in practice and we’ll go with whoever performs best in practice and gives us the best chance to win,” Craddock said.
Hicks opened with the first team to start Tuesday’s practice, but Morris said the first-team reps would rotate.
Questions continue to be asked about the availability of true freshman K. J. Jefferson. He’s a 6-3, 228-pounder with legitimate 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash.
“He’s extremely talented,” Morris said. “He’s done a great job with scout team. We’ll keep bringing him on. We’d love to redshirt him if we could. We’ll see how that goes.”
Craddock said, “We challenged him a couple of weeks ago. The biggest thing with (Jefferson) is he’s taken a big step since the bye week. I quiz him on the offense even though he’s not the starter. He’s learning and doing a good job. If he does continue to grow, who knows, we could have a package for him later in the year.”
Could this be the week that the Hogs add a run-pass option package for Jefferson?
As far as the run-pass quarterback variety, that’s what seems to bother the Hogs the most. Nix has some ability as a runner. He’s the second-leading rusher for the Tigers with 45 carries for a net of 191 yards.
The Big Matchup
The Arkansas offensive line will face its biggest challenge. The Auburn defensive line might be the best in the SEC.
Defensive tackle Derrick Brown (6-5, 318 pounds) and end Marlon Davidson (6-3, 278) are both seniors with All-America credentials.
Craddock was asked specifically about Brown.
“He’s probably the best interior lineman we’ve ever faced,” Craddock said. “He gets off blocks really easily. You see in the Florida game, he picks up a fumble and is really fast down the sideline. He’s a good player we’re going to have to get ready for.”
The Arkansas offensive line had an up-and-down game against Kentucky. There were some creases for Rakeem Boyd early, but busts in pass protection sealed the doom at the end when Hicks was hit on back-to-back plays.
How center Ty Clary and guards Ricky Stromberg and Austin Capps handle the heart of the Auburn defensive line will be a big part of this game.
The Hogs did not have left tackle Colton Jackson last week. He missed while under concussion protocol. Myron Cunningham went the entire game. Jackson was working with the first unit in the middle of the week. Both will probably play.
The Return Game
It’s been a weapon for the Hogs the last two games with big returns by freshman Treylon Burks against Texas A&M and Kentucky. Burks set up a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter against Kentucky. His long on the year is 32 yards.
Auburn has a solid return game, too. Speedy Christian Tutt averages 15.4 on 13 returns.
Of course, it was special teams play that was the key in Auburn’s 34-3 victory last year. The Tigers returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown right after the only Arkansas points. The Tigers returned three punts 95 yards.
The big plays in the kicking game negated a solid night against the Auburn running game. The Tigers made only 13 first downs and rushed for 91 yards on 36 attempts. They made just 225 yards on 58 snaps.
It’s the second straight week the Hogs face a team coming off an open date. Of course, the Hogs were coming off an open date against Kentucky, too.
Auburn lost at Florida, 24-13, two weeks ago when the Tigers made only 269 yards of total offense. They also had trouble moving the ball against Texas A&M earlier this season, making just 299.
Third down plagued them in both of those games. They totaled just six conversions in 26 tries in those two games.
Will the Tigers come up with some new wrinkles for third downs this week with a week off?
That’s always been the theme with Gus Malzahn teams after an open date - a few new wrinkles. The Arkansas defensive staff knows misdirection with speed is an Auburn constant.
“Auburn has some of the fastest guys in the nation,” Chavis said. “You’ll see reverses, throwbacks and all of that. They intend to use the receivers they have to push the ball down the field. They also want to run, and you have prepare for it all.”
Both Morris and Chavis indicated this week that there would be an attempt to rotate more players, especially on defense.
There are 15 freshmen on the Arkansas depth chart, but some have played only sparingly. That may be about to change.
“I’ve challenged our coaches and team that we have to create depth and play more guys,” Morris said. “Do I think that had anything to do with us wearing down in the fourth quarter?
“Anytime you play 37 minutes, it’s hard. When we needed to make a stop we were unable to get one. We had one miscommunication call, and it cost us. It was on the touchdown that allowed Kentucky to take the lead late. We had boundary pressure on, and it came from the wrong side. It wasn’t a lack of being worn down that led to that. We were just not aligned properly.”
Chavis said it was a “boundary pressure” where the cornerback came from the wrong side. The call from the sideline was wrong.
But there will be an attempt to play more defensive backs in hopes of being fresher at the end.
“We’re trying to get them ready,” Morris said. “We owe it to this team and each player. Last year we had to throw Bumper Pool out there before he was ready. Now, he’s a better player. He withstood the season. We’re going to continue to push the envelope with these guys.”
Among those expected to get snaps are cornerbacks LaDarrius Bishop and Malik Chavis, and safety Jalen Catalon.
The Running Game
No one has had much luck running the ball against Auburn and Rakeem Boyd is fighting through a shoulder injury. He’s the top rusher for the Hogs with 617 yards and a 5.8 average.
His shoulder injury against Kentucky is the opposite side from the injury that required offseason surgery. He is expected to play against Auburn.
“Again, we can get T.J. Hammonds more involved,” Craddock said. “I’m really pushing to get (true freshman) A’Montae Spivey in there. It’s hard to put him in there vs. SEC opponents, though, when the game could come down to one play.”
Spivey grew up in the shadow of the Auburn campus, in nearby Phenix City, Ala. His high school team was undefeated and Class 7A state champion.
The Tigers will be without injured starter JaTarvious Whitlow, who has rushed for 544 yards and seven touchdowns.
“Auburn has two backs who aren’t quite as big as Whitlow, but they’re probably faster,” Chavis said. “They’re not going to change their offense because he’s not there. Gus Malzahn has playmakers he wants to get the ball to, and they’ll do that.”
It’s been the long held belief that the essence of coaching is getting your team to play hard.
The effort against San Jose State was substandard, the major disappointment in Year 2 of the Morris era. The effort in the Texas A&M and Kentucky games was a major improvement.
Now, can Morris and his staff coach effort and intensity this week after two disappointing near misses?
It’s the central issue in this game and probably for the rest of the season. Can this team still play hard as the losses mount?
One thing that I recall about the early two years of the Bobby Petrino era was that he continued to push more young players into the fight. It’s easier to motivate when playing time hangs in the balance and young players will fight to get on the field.
That appears to be what’s happening now.
That’s going to be a central theme for both teams. Auburn has had games where penalties have been an issue. That’s also the case for the Razorbacks.
Can the Hogs play clean with the game on the line? As much as anything, that has been the case over the last two losses.
Of course, there were five Arkansas penalties in the fourth quarter against Texas A&M. It doomed the Hogs.
The penalties were not an issue against Kentucky, but missed assignments in the offensive line doomed them just as much as penalties.
Arkansas must find a way to play clean if it hopes to stay with Auburn and have a chance to win in the fourth quarter as it did in its last two SEC outings.
Something needs to fall right for these Razorbacks. For example, when a punt is fumbled and an Arkansas player falls on the ball and hands it to the official, the official needs to point the right direction.
Maybe playing early will do the trick. The 11 a.m. starts often favor the underdog. The favorites sometimes don’t wake up on fire. The Hogs need to sense that and come to the stadium play with urgency. Upsets happen every week. Ask Georgia and South Carolina.
The other thing that needs to happen is antiseptic play in the red zone. Auburn’s defense is one of the nation’s best in the red zone. The Tigers are 12th nationally, allowing points on just 68.4 percent of their opponents’ trips inside the 20.
The Hogs don’t need to just get points in the red zones. They need to start scoring touchdowns. Maybe an early start will help.
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