State of the Hogs:

What is obvious on first day of preseason practice?

By: Clay Henry
Published: Tuesday, August 3, 2021
Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman is shown during the Razorbacks' spring Red-White game on Saturday, April 17, 2021, in Fayetteville.
( Charlie Kaijo)
Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman is shown during the Razorbacks' spring Red-White game on Saturday, April 17, 2021, in Fayetteville.

The first Arkansas football practice is Friday.

It will probably be one of the days media gets to watch a bit. Asked what there will be to see, the obvious answer is: not much.

Or maybe there will be something that smacks you in the face.

The NCAA — for at least this season — is still in charge of what can and can’t happen to open August football practices. The rule is practices are shorts and helmets with no contact on the first day. That's probably a good rule.

It’s glorified gym class with footballs flying around. There will be excitement because of what is to come, not because of what is happening on the field.

However, there was a first practice 21 years ago that at least one person figured out that a cold wind was about to blow over the Arkansas football season.

My father, the late Orville Henry, was a few months into chemotherapy for the pancreatic cancer that would kill him 18 months later. He and I watched the early part of practice, some of it with Wilson Matthews and Harold Horton.

My father didn’t stay until the end. He had pre-arranged for my daughter Sarah to pick him up at 5 p.m. on the street outside the practice field. An hour or so would be all he could handle. She would take him to his motel and he was asleep by the time practice ended.

What happened at the end of practice was the stunner. Gary Brashears, the sophomore quarterback some predicted would win the starting job, could not handle the conditioning test. He failed miserably, yelled at by quarterbacks coach Joe Ferguson over the last few 100-yard gassers.

One of his quarterback competitors later said Ferguson “smoked” Brashears. The ultra-talented quarterback from Clarksville, one of the most talked about in Arkansas high school history, responded by ducking out of Walker Pavilion at the end of one of the sprints.

It still remains the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. I left practice shaking my head about Brashears' exit, but I didn’t have any uneasy feelings about the overall prospects of the season.

I went to my office, wrote a report of the first day’s happenings. Then, when I got home for dinner, Sarah gave me the report from her grandfather. I was stunned.

“Grandpa O told me when I picked him up outside the fields that he was worried about the team because there didn’t seem to be enough depth in the lines and that quarterback might be a problem,” she said. “He thought the one with the best arm looked out of shape and might not make it through the conditioning test. He said he might even just quit that day.”

Oh, my. He saw all of that in one hour of watching a practice in shorts?

My reply, “Well, he nailed the Gary Brashears part. He was long gone about an hour after your Grandpa O told you that.”

It was just another confirmation of why you sit at practice with old coaches like Matthews and Horton. Listen more than you talk. They can pick out things the rest of us don’t see.

I met my father for breakfast. During those days, he was sharpest in the mornings and tired quickly. He asked questions about what I’d seen after he left. And, there were deep follow-up queries.

That was the last Arkansas football practice that he attended. My job as his eyes at practice intensified. He might not could go, but he sure could ask me questions.

The most pressure I’ve ever felt during the 29 years of publishing Hawgs Illustrated always came when my father asked questions. Mostly, I could answer them because I tried to watch without distractions or with someone more knowledgeable.

Back to the 2000 team, which went 6-6. Injuries were the constant theme, especially at quarterback where Robby Hampton, Zak Clark and Jared McBride all got turns. When all three were injured at South Carolina on Oct. 14 and then beat up again Oct. 28 at Auburn, John Rutledge was recruited from the intramural fields for the Nov. 4 home game against Ole Miss.

Hampton led the Hogs with 1,548 yards passing. He completed just three touchdown passes. That was the fewest since Quinn Grovey threw for two touchdowns as a freshman in 1987.

That team did at least make a bowl trip, although nothing to brag about. It lost to UNLV in the Las Vegas Bowl.

It marked the first realizations of something my father feared the night before the Cotton Bowl the previous year: that the potential of an NCAA investigation would take a toll. He got that 10 minutes after a Dallas TV station reported the Ted Harrod scandal.

That didn’t smack me in the face until much later. And, I have never had the ability to watch an hour of practice and deduce that there was a problem. So don’t expect that revelation Friday night in this space.

I will point out that I look for clues that suggest lack of depth because of Aug. 12, 2000. And, because of Oct. 24, 2000, when the Hogs needed three quarterbacks to get through a game against South Carolina and an intramural star two games later.

The memory that will never escape me is an injured Hampton, who had been the starter, returning to the field to finish the South Carolina game after Clark and McBride had been helped off the field.

When someone says the backup quarterback is an ankle sprain away from being a starter, it’s fair to say that the third teamer is two ankle sprains away. The best guy in intramurals is just one play past that.

I’ve seen it happen.

That’s why I was more concerned after the spring game with how the three vying for the backup quarterback post behind KJ Jefferson were progressing. The chances of a quarterback — in the days of the run-pass option — surviving without an injury through 12 games are gone.

But it’s not just that. Alabama dominates the SEC not because it has the best starters — although it does by a wide margin — but because it has the best second and third-team players and is able to scrimmage more than any other team.

The Hogs should be better this season because there is more depth, especially on both sides of the line of scrimmage. I’m still reminded of watching one of the early Chad Morris practices when there were only nine healthy offensive linemen. How do you practice with that handicap?

Competition is the best medicine for any football team and the Hogs didn’t have that in recent years. It’s better now.

The same goes for the defensive line where the summer acquisitions of graduate transfers Tre Williams, Markell Utsey and John Ridgeway are huge. There is finally hope in that area.

There will be no way to know if my biggest hopes for this team are realized Friday. It could be that Sam Pittman’s second team features a toughness in the running game — on both sides of the ball — that has been the glaring weakness for the Razorbacks for too long.

Being able to run the ball on first down or on third-and-1 is what football is all about. Defensively, the ability to stop those plays determines most of the outcomes in the SEC.

It was encouraging to hear Pittman tell the crowd at SEC Media Days that the increased depth in the defensive front will allow for more creative calls by coordinator Barry Odom. Movement in the defensive front is nasty to block.

None of that will be obvious when they practice Friday. Practicing in shorts is not real football. And, it may not be obvious that you are better during practice when Pittman calls for a scrimmage.

Sometimes you can’t see those things when you are going against yourself.

You won’t know that until the Hogs play Rice and Texas in the first two games.

I don’t worry about anyone failing the conditioning test on Friday. The highly organized summer workouts ended those. Summer workouts may still be called voluntary, but Pittman and staff already know this team is in shape.

No, my concern is that when that first practice is done, what would my dad ask? I know those answers would make for a good column.

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