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.
Scrimmage struggles expected by Pittman
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman is shown during a scrimmage Saturday, April 3, 2021, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Coach Sam Pittman had concerns about how precise the University of Arkansas offense might be in Saturday’s scrimmage after one practice in shells after the Razorbacks returned from spring break.
Call it a coach’s intuition. Turned out he was spot on, as the Razorbacks defense won the day on a sunny but chilly afternoon before a few thousand fans at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
The offense flashed on a few plays, such as T.J. Hammonds’ tackle-breaking 73-yard touchdown run and some solid work during a red-zone period that produced three rapid-fire touchdowns.
Otherwise, the defense ruled.
“We were on a discretionary week, a spring break week, and came back and practiced on Thursday,” Pittman said. “So we were basically off from the practice field for eight days, and I felt like it showed on our offense, with the accuracy of throws and hanging onto the ball, jumping offsides. We didn’t play very smart football today on the offensive side of the ball.
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“But some of that, I expected it. We certainly aren’t sitting here going, ‘We’re happy that it happened,’ but there are some reasons behind some of the situations that happened today.”
First-team quarterback KJ Jefferson, in unofficial statistics, completed 13 of 20 passes for 90 yards and a touchdown.
Malik Hornsby — working mostly with the second unit, but also a little with the ones — completed 9 of 24 throws for 115 yards. Hornsby was picked off by safety Simeon Blair on a tipped ball over the middle.
The defensive backs had a huge performance with eight pass breakups, two by Blair, and one from cornerback Khari Johnson on the first play of the day to set the tone. Montaric Brown also had a pass breakup and a big tackle in space for a key third-down stop.
There were also plenty of flags, including five false starts and a couple of holding calls. The most critical penalty was an illegal man downfield early in the workout that negated a 75-yard touchdown pass from Jefferson to Mike Woods on a slick double move to get past Johnson.
The near touchdown to Woods came at an interesting point in the scrimmage. Pittman had just ripped into the offense for not hustling onto the field to start a new series, just after Hammonds’ touchdown, which sparked a spontaneous hog call from the fans.
“We’ve run 10 plays and you’re acting out of shape,” Pittman yelled, making the offense go back to the sideline and take the field again.
Other than Hammonds’ long scoring run, the rushing game had few big moments. Dominique Johnson scored for the second unit on a 10-yard run in red-zone work. On the next snap, Raheim Sanders broke around the left edge to score an 18-yard touchdown.
One play after Blair broke up a Jefferson pass at the line of scrimmage and wagged a Dikembe Mutombo-like finger at Jefferson, the quarterback got even. He stood in the pocket and delivered a strike to Treylon Burks in traffic for an 8-yard touchdown with Blair right on Burks’ hip.
Dorian Gerald posted 2.5 sacks and another tackle for loss to lead the defense.
Hornsby also had a few mesh issues with running backs in the Razorbacks’ read-option scheme.
Pittman attributed the illegal lineman downfield penalty to timing issues with the offense.
“Usually you’ll see a mesh, a read, a throw, therefore your linemen don’t really get downfield past 3 yards,” Pittman said. “Today it was a read, a mesh, a wait, a throw. Basically that’s going to happen with inexperienced quarterbacks.
“It’s going to take them a little bit longer than maybe what Feleipe [Franks] would have had on his reads and getting the ball out of his hands. There’s really nothing you can do as a lineman. You don’t know if they handed the ball off or not in our offense, so some of those were very unfortunate.”
Pittman said there could have been another reason for the sluggish showing.
“We had 40-something kids take the vaccine this week as well, so it certainly could have done something with their energy,” Pittman said. “I don’t know that. I’m not trying to make excuses, believe me, but I’m understanding about some of the sloppy play that there might be a reason behind it. Not tolerated, but might be a reason behind it.”
While Hornsby’s throwing was off the mark for the most part, his running was on display. Even with a couple of negative-yardage plays thrown in, Hornsby ran for 54 yards on eight carries, some of those ending with touch-tackles on which he might have gained more.
Hammonds had 2 carries for 73 yards to lead all ball carriers, while Johnson had 45 yards on 9 carries, Sanders had 28 yards and Trelon Smith added 21 yards.
Junior quarterback John Stephen Jones completed 7 of 9 passes for 77 yards. Freshman quarterback Lucas Coley completed 4 of 6 passes for 52 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown strike to freshman tight end Zach Lee.
Pittman said the Razorbacks likely will practice in shells one day and in just helmets the other day on Tuesday and Thursday this week, capped by a workout with no tackling in shells Saturday for spring practice No. 12.
“We had thought about this for a long time, about having the scrimmage,” he said. “I did not want to scrimmage the week before the spring game.”
Pittman said he would continue to meet with the coaches regarding the format and roster split for the annual Red-White game April 17 and probably make those decisions on the Thursday prior to the spring finale.
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