Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
State of the Hogs:
Healthy Hogs finding answers at QB
Arkansas quarterback Malik Hornsby (4) throws a pass, Saturday, April 17, 2021 during the second quarter of the Red-White spring football game at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville. Check out nwaonline.com/210418Daily/ for the photo gallery.
All football coaches announce goals to make spring practice about physical play and toughness.
Trust this about Sam Pittman, his first spring at Arkansas accomplished those goals. Some who saw every snap thought it was the most physical spring on campus in the last decade.
There’s a funny thing about physical practices: serious injuries seem to disappear.
It was not different with the 15th and final practice, the Red-White Game on Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. There were no significant injuries.
Pittman laughed when detailing the only time a player failed to jump up immediately after the whistle. Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Andy Boykin rolled around for a few seconds.
“He laid on the ground with an injured wrist,” Pittman said. “I asked him, ‘Are your legs hurt?’ He said no. I told him to leave the field and let someone look at him.
“When I called up the team after we were done, I made a point to ask him if he was alright. He said he was good.”
That’s what I saw of the Razorbacks, although I can’t tell you why the Red team won 30-20 on the scoreboard. The teams were split with the ones on both teams. In other words, it was always the one offense against the one defense or twos against twos.
What I wanted to watch concerned the progress at backup quarterback because Pittman’s second Arkansas team is going to be built around a running quarterback. Since there was no contact with the QBs, nothing on display in the spring can reveal where the team is going to be in the fall.
What is obvious is the pecking order at QB. KJ Jefferson is the clear starter, the leader of the team, according to Pittman and the entire team. What hasn’t been announced yet is just as important, that Malik Hornsby is the clear backup.
That’s as important as Jefferson’s status, because there are slim chances of one quarterback escaping the gauntlet of SEC defenses game after game. Jefferson is a big target and likely will miss some time somewhere along the way. Can Hornsby run the team?
“I get your question,” Pittman said. “What I’ll say is that KJ is smart and he’s not going to take many hits. But you are 100% correct, you can’t make it through a season with one quarterback.
“We didn’t last year and that’s why having KJ ready (for the Missouri game) when (Feleipe) Franks went down (was important). If you are going to run this offense, the No. 2 better be ready to roll.
“I’m becoming a bigger believer in Hornsby every time I see him. We are also getting better with Lucas Coley, John Stephen Jones and Kade Renfro on who is next (after Hornsby).”
Offensive coordinator Kendal Briles believes in calling the quarterback’s number. The run-pass option is the heart and soul of the system. Jefferson and Hornsby are the two best runners at that position, although with different styles.
“You don’t really get to see that (with no contact in the spring),” Pittman said. “I think KJ has matured and has command of the team. He’s become very good.
“I don’t think you can see how good when you tag out (for tackles) on quarterbacks, so you can’t call any quarterback runs.”
Jefferson is fast, but at a slimmer 220 pounds this spring is still not a scat back. He’s got stiffness about his dashes.
Then, there’s Hornsby, the 6-2, 183-pound redshirt freshman from Missouri City, Texas. He’s a scat back. He’s a 10.4 guy in the 100 meters. His dashes are like Felix Jones with the ball. It’s acceleration with a little wiggle. You don’t catch him.
The consternation about his play Saturday was the three or four times Hornsby threw into coverage. Pittman seemed to ignore those passes – all missed by defensive backs – when he offered praise.
“I was impressed,” Pittman said. “I thought he was way more accurate and had great command.”
Of course, Pittman added, “He’s a way better player when we use him as a runner.”
Hornsby scampered six times (not counting two sacks when a defender tagged) for only 15 positive yards. But, most of the time, the downfield runs were called over when no one was close to getting a good shot.
The quarterbacks seem perfect for the Briles offense and are rounding into shape as passers, too. Hornsby has the arm. He sometimes gets his feet tangled like a young colt as he prepares to throw on rollouts, but that is happening less.
It’s an offense Jefferson loves.
“It’s an RPO run game,” Jefferson said. “But Coach Briles is a firm believer that you take no unnecessary shots. Be smart. When you need to, get down. When you have space, take it. It’s a fast-tempo RPO game. We want to stay healthy.
“All the quarterbacks in the room are athletes. We can make runs in the open field. When a defense loads the box to stop (the RPO game), then we are going to throw over the top.”
Safety Jalen Catalon sees development from all the quarterbacks. Jefferson is the leader, but he said, “Hornsby is ready to play. He’s a sponge at practice. You saw today that he can throw, but it’s that ability to run that makes him special.”
Catalon mentioned the rest of the QB candidates. The development of that position is probably what most in the crowd of 18,576 left talking about.
Many probably didn’t notice there was no activity for the doctors. It’s been that way all spring. Yes, a handful of players didn’t see the field because of assorted minor injuries.
Hopefully, most noticed this is a bigger, stronger and tougher Arkansas team. That’s what happens when the first offense works against the first-team defense.
“We didn’t have a bad practice,” Pittman said. “We moved forward this spring.”
Get used to it. There is nothing to suggest Arkansas is going to go backward under Pittman anytime soon. That’s what happens when no one is laying on the ground for long.
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