State of the Hogs

Observations from Arkansas' Saturday football scrimmage

Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson is shown during a scrimmage Saturday, April 3, 2021, in Fayetteville.

Quarterback play often rules the day in a spring scrimmage.

Whether or not there is sharpness in their passing can either impress or depress.

In two Saturday scrimmages this spring open to fans and the media, it’s probably the lack of the desired crispness that stands out. That’s unfair, because I saw flashes from almost every quarterback that leads me to believe the second year under Arkansas coach Sam Pittman will be plenty good.

No, the passing game – intentionally vanilla in the two open scrimmages – has more capability than what offensive coordinator Kendal Briles could call upon last season with Feleipe Franks at quarterback.

Never mind that Franks set a school record with a 68.5 % passing. He totaled 17 touchdown passes against just four interceptions.

The Hogs are going to do better than that eventually under KJ Jefferson, mostly because there is going to be better offensive line, better downhill running and stronger pass protection.

The easiest pass to complete is the one with the linebackers stepping forward because they fear the run. The Hogs are going to run the ball better. Play-action passing is the sweetest way to move the ball.

Tight ends are going to have a big 2021. That’s what I saw in Saturday’s scrimmage that gives hope for that improvement. With linebackers playing the run – and I think that’s going to happen – Blake Kern and Hudson Henry are going to be open in the heart of the defense.

Henry impressed Saturday. He’s thicker and is more comfortable hooking up with blocking. He is not overwhelmed by a defensive end at the line of scrimmage. One of the highlights came when he turned up field with a catch on the sideline, then turned into a safety approaching from the side to take him on. He would have glided out of bounds last year.

Why? Safeties are going to be tracking Treylon Burks. If they don’t, the big junior wide receiver will light up the scoreboard.

What I saw Saturday was that Jefferson – and almost all of the other quarterbacks – are going to be huge threats as runners in the run-pass option game that is the heart of the Briles offense.

It wasn’t with Franks, a willing runner but not really a threat to take it to the house. Jefferson can do that. So can Malik Hornsby and Lucas Coley, the top candidates to win the backup job.

You don’t test the ability of a quarterback to make plays in the running game in spring scrimmages, although Jefferson, Hornsby and Coley did make plays in the running game. It’s just that the defense is not going to touch them. And, they aren’t likely to take their threat seriously.

What you really want to see in the spring: will they run through their progressions and find their secondary targets against a sophisticated secondary? And, that’s what the Hogs have now with Barry Odom as defensive coordinator.

The quarterbacks struggled with their progressions Saturday. Jefferson was the best, the reason he’s the No. 1 quarterback. But he wasn’t always as quick as he’ll be with more polish.

Hornsby struggled more than Coley, although I didn’t see enough of Coley to know for sure how far he’s come in the last month. Hornsby didn’t see Burks break open on a deep hook in some red zone work midway through the scrimmage. That can’t happen. He should be the No. 1 target on every play because the first defender isn’t going to get him on the ground.

There were no spring scrimmages to observe last year because of covid-19, so it’s the first time to really observe what Odom does that makes their defenses so good. What I saw was great tackling, especially with the first group.

Grant Morgan, the All-America linebacker, didn’t get to do much. But I saw Bumper Pool, his running mate at inside linebacker, make perfect form downhill tackles when he was on the field.

It seems the Hogs are getting better in their coverages in the middle of the field, with deeper and quicker drops from their linebackers. Safeties Simeon Blair and Joe Foucha are now the perfect complements to Jalen Catalon.

Catalon’s hits ring loudest among that solid first team defense. He made three that may have been heard while the Hogs were taking batting practice two miles south at Baum-Walker Stadium.

The hitting was impressive at the line of scrimmage. Both lines are playing at a lower and better pad level than last season. I figured that was coming as Pittman got his chance to improve physicality.

There were hitting drills ahead of the scrimmage that impressed the crowd of about 1,500, including super fan Canaan Sandy. It was Sandy who organized a Hog Call early in the scrimmage when Pittman was unhappy about the way the offense came on the field to start a series.

Seeing Sandy stand up and turn around to ignite the fans was just as much fun as the time Catalon pulled off with a little chirp just as he was closing in on Jefferson’s quarterback keeper.

Who would win that battle of the players who wear No. 1? More than likely it would be Catalon. It’s the reason Pittman doesn’t allow quarterbacks to be smacked in the spring. The public address announcer – calling the ball carrier and the tackler – credited someone else for the stop on Jefferson, giving a cornerback the “touch” several yards down the field.

That was just as much of an error as saying the Hog Call – as one reporter did – was spontaneous. No, Sandy is a sure thing when it comes to inspiring the crowd. Whether it’s at a high school game to watch a top Razorback recruit or at a spring scrimmage, Sandy is consistently brilliant in the magical way he connects.

Through two scrimmages, it’s clear the Hogs are deeper and more talented. They are much better than the team that went 3-7 last year and threatened to win several more games.

They have more linemen, better linemen and are much deeper at wide receiver and the secondary. They can cover and they are better at gaining separation than the last four seasons.

Special teams are getting a major overhaul. It appears kickers are in a position to be protected better – with the snap coming at angle to provide a tougher point to block from the outside. Punters are getting better protection. The shield has decreased from three to two, but that allows for more to release in coverage.

I do not recall seeing as much spring work on kickoff situations as the last two Saturday scrimmages. That will pay dividends in the fall.

As far as improvement in line play, the most significant jumps are coming at defensive end where Eric Gregory is a fast, physical beast. Mataio Soli should benefit from a widened look for the defensive ends. Jashaud Stewart is going to be in the rotation at end, too.

Among the other bright points was some tough blocking by wide receiver Trey Knox on perimeter plays. Kendall Catalon and John David White both made plays at wide receiver.

In the secondary, Blair is developing into a standout, as is nickel cover man Greg Brooks. The improved play of those two gives Odom the ability to slide coverages and take advantage of one-one-one cover matchups and that will free linebackers and safeties for more blitzes.

Yes, all of this hints at improvement. How much? I think it’s quite a bit from where the Hogs finished last season. They are bigger and tougher. It’s exactly what you’d hope for with an old line coach like Pittman in charge.

It’s probably the reason Sandy decided a Hog Call was needed about 20 minutes into the day. It seemed appropriate.