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.
Bent on being better: Hogs focused on finishing in scrimmage
Arkansas quarterback Feleipe Franks is shown during the Razorbacks' first scrimmage of the preseason on Aug. 28, 2020.
FAYETTEVILLE — The most important scrimmage of the Sam Pittman era at the University of Arkansas will take place today at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
That’s not hyperbole.
There are position battles taking place across the field, but particularly at left guard, right tackle, some spots in the defensive backfield, and in the kicking game. Issues of depth, particularly with the possibility of covid-19 outbreaks, are a significant factor for the Razorbacks, so identifying second- and third-teamers who can contribute is critical.
Communication lines need to be refined: Press box to the sideline, the sideline to the field, player-to-player dialogue.
Live tackling, doled out in snippets through the first 10 practices, with one big dose in last Friday’s scrimmage, has to be conducted as part of the 25 NCAA-allowed workouts.
And then there’s the game readiness factor that Pittman has harped on since last weekend’s scrimmage. The Razorbacks have to begin rounding into game shape to effectively operate Kendal Briles’ uptempo attack and run Barry Odom’s defensive schemes in advance of the season opener here on Sept. 26 against No. 4 Georgia.
Embracing the physical strain has been a theme for the Hogs this week.
“A lot of times I think we feel like when we hit a guy, that’s when the play is over,” Pittman said this week. “To be completely honest with you, when you hit a guy, that’s when the play starts.
“The whole week’s emphasis has been on finishing blocks, finishing tackles, finishing runs, finishing one-on-one and things of that nature. Just basically playing through the whistle, and we’ve made a big emphasis on that and we certainly expect that to be a change this Friday.”
Graduate transfer quarterback Feleipe Franks will be working with the first offensive unit, with likely very few live snaps for top tailback Rakeem Boyd, who is essentially the franchise in 2020 after rushing for 1,133 yards a year ago. Redshirt freshman K.J. Jefferson will guide the second offensive unit, Briles said, with the other quarterbacks plugging in occasion and working with the threes.
Pittman said he is trying to pick and choose the live tackling moments in camp, and that Odom has been able to focus on it in some individual drills. It’s a different story with 22 players on the field, thus full tackling is very important today.
“That’s one area that you’ve always got to continue to work on,” Odom said. “And it’s not just getting the one-on-one tackle. It’s guys playing fast and playing together and playing with relentless effort and knowing where your leverage points are and knowing where you have help and where you don’t.
“We need to tackle. We need to tackle well on Friday. The simulation in individual drills, I think we’ve gotten a lot of reps and a lot of work out of it. But there’s really no substitute for doing it live action. So I’m anxious to see how we do on Friday, and then we’ll make adjustments from there if we continue to need to do more of that.”
Pittman said he would like to come out of the scrimmage with a strong idea of the starting five on the offensive front, as well as the unit’s top three to five reserves. Myron Cunningham, Ricky Stromberg and Beaux Limmer look pretty solid at left tackle, center and right guard thus far. The scrimmage is key for battles like Luke Jones and Ty Clary at left guard, Dalton Wagner and Noah Gatlin at right tackle and depth across the board.
“It’s big,” Pittman said. “It’s not all or nothing. But I think you’ll solidify four of them and then there’ll be another position there where you go, ‘You know what, this is a guy we’re going to put with the Ones and we’re going to live with it unless somebody else just looks really good in the next week after the scrimmage.’
“It’s a big deal. You can tell a lot about your team when everything is live. The answer is yes, the scrimmage is a big deal for everybody, probably especially the offensive line.”
Pittman said the offensive line had a strong first scrimmage in both pass blocking and the run game, but that has changed this week. While the run blocking has been sturdy, the unit’s pass protection has not been as solid.
“We’ve got to get better, Pittman said. “It’s concerning to Coach [Brad] Davis and it’s concerning to the O-line. But I think we’re progressing pretty well.”
Said Briles, “The biggest thing that we’re really stressing this week is physicality and really straining on blocks. We’ve got what I believe is two of the best O-line coaches around with Pittman and then Coach Davis.
“When you have those guys that are working with them they’re always going to progress and get better. We’ve seen them do that. I feel really comfortable about Myron Cunningham at our left tackle spot and I think Beaux Limmer is playing really well at our right guard position and Stromberg at center. We’ve just got to settle down in a couple of other areas and I feel we’ll be really good up front.”
The conditions for today’s scrimmage are stacking up better than last week. Briles said the players’ “tongues were dragging” a little in last Friday’s scrimmage with temperatures in the 90s and high humidity. Today’s forecast is calling for high temperatures in the low 80s with about a 15% chance for rain and about 72% humidity.
The Razorbacks ran roughly 125 plays in their first scrimmage, 50 each for the top two units and another 25 or so for the threes. They also conducted work for each of the kicking units.
Pittman did not specify the snap allotments he plans for today.
Odom said one of the overriding points for the defense all season will be limiting chunk plays. Arkansas gave up 70 plays from scrimmage of 20 or more yards to rank 108th in the FBS last season.
“The thing with tackling, it’s eliminating explosive plays,” Odom said. “They’re going to get some plays, but find a way to get them down. When they break the line of scrimmage and get to the second level with a back, we have to get him down.
“There’s a number of trademarks on playing good defense, and one of them that’s toward the top of the list is eliminate explosive plays. And it’s OK if they catch a hitch for seven yards and you get him down. Don’t let it go for 70.”
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