State of the Hogs:

Quarterback, defensive line observations from Day 1 of Arkansas' spring drills

By: Clay Henry
Published: Thursday, March 11, 2021
Arkansas defensive line coach Jermial Ashley is shown during practice Tuesday, March 9, 2021, in Fayetteville.
( Walt Beazley, Arkansas Razorbacks )
Arkansas defensive line coach Jermial Ashley is shown during practice Tuesday, March 9, 2021, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — The first day of spring football practice never includes pads. There can be no contact. It’s more like gym class than real football.

Whether or not a team can throw and catch can be determined. Arkansas displayed plenty of firepower in that regard Tuesday as coach Sam Pittman’s second team went through the first of 15 practices.

In the almost one hour of practice the media observed, it was high-octane passing. Quarterbacks and wide receivers are talented and were on the same page, remarkable for a first practice. Most every pass was on target and caught.

As for the quarterbacks, none disappointed and that goes especially for newcomers Lucas Coley and Kade Renfro, the latter a transfer from Ole Miss with roots from Stephenville, Texas.

It’s assumed that redshirt sophomore KJ Jefferson will be the frontrunner to replace Feleipe Franks. He was first up Tuesday and performed with poise and effectiveness in what the media saw and, from player accounts, in the second hour, too.

I wasn’t so much interested in Jefferson. Knowing that quarterbacks are going to run plenty in coordinator Kendal Briles’ offense suggests that the battle for the backup spot is just as important. Who will it be?

Most figured redshirt freshman Malik Hornsby would have a leg up on the two newcomers, early enrollee Coley and the transfer Renfro. Or, could John Stephen Jones finally step forward?

In limited snaps Tuesday, it was clear that Coley has a chance to factor in that race. It’s a big deal for a high school quarterback to get a spring to absorb the pace of the college game.

Coley (6-2, 207 pounds) has the stature and ability to compete now. He’s got the arm for the deep ball, speed in the run game and didn’t flinch in his first college practice.

A product of San Antonio, Coley will get hit with a lot over the next month. Most freshman quarterbacks are overwhelmed in their first spring. But he might be capable of a surprise.

Pittman said Coley’s work ethic impressed in January and February. He was ready for his first day.

I didn’t see every play made by the quarterbacks because the position on the field (each reporter had to stand on a taped 'X' for the entire eight periods) was near the defensive line workouts.

I wanted to observe the way new defensive line coach Jermial Ashley worked that group. The obvious first impression: at 6-6, 280, Ashley is bigger than his players.

Some might carry more weight than their new coach, but Ashley looked like the former All-Big 12 defensive tackle he was at Kansas.

It was apparent Ashley wants to change technique. His coaching included efforts to lower pad level (even before pads are added) and change the first step of his linemen.

Thrust angle and head position was corrected as players worked against padded leverage posts. Corrections were made until players did drills correctly.

Pittman arrived to observe early in the D-line drills and his emphasis and encouragement was added to Ashley’s points. The players stepped through and over foam pads with an attempt at staying low.

It’s a good looking group, although it’s clear why Pittman continues to look in the transfer portal for defensive line help, particularly in hopes of improving the pass rush.

Here are thoughts on some of the top players from the defensive line group on hand now:

• End Eric Gregory (6-4, 283) will be more of a physical force as a redshirt sophomore. The Memphis product is thicker and still possesses an explosive first step.

• Tackle Jalen Williams (6-3, 310) has both the upper and lower body to play in the SEC. The junior transfer from Jones (Miss.) College is a stud.

• End Zach Williams (6-4, 246) is still on the light side, but he’s got quickness and speed to be the edge rusher needed. Pittman said ends will be set wider in some variations of a three-man scheme that Ashley utilized at Tulsa and that fits the Joe T. Robinson product Williams.

• Tackle Isaiah Nichols (6-3, 281) looks both thicker and quicker. The roster weight might be fudging on the light side for the Springdale High graduate.

• Tackle Marcus Miller (6-5, 307) might be the closest in looks to Ashley. The Warren product is probably a little heavier than that weight.

• End Dorian Gerald (6-3, 288) still has a quick twitch at a bigger weight. The sixth-year senior might excel under Ashley. There were some coaching points for Gerald that would add to his explosiveness.

Pittman’s pre-spring interviews included thoughts on adding more pressure help for the defensive line. There will be more blitzes as Barry Odom expands what was mostly “a drop and cover” scheme last year.

To do that, coverage will have to improve, most notably from the cornerback and nickel positions. The Hogs are experienced there.

Blitzes from the linebackers will be more frequent, but there will also be pressure calls for the three safety positions, manned on the first team Tuesday by veterans Jalen Catalon, Joe Foucha and Simeon Blair.

Pittman praised the work ethic from Blair on Monday. His upper body looks to be much improved. At 5-10, 204, the former high school quarterback from Pine Bluff continues to impress coaches with his lack of mental errors.

The Hogs looked improved at cornerback where Penn State transfer Trent Gordon adds to an experienced group led by Montaric Brown, Khari Johnson and Malik Chavis.

Then there were the freaks of practice, the big backs with speed. Treylon Burks (6-3, 232) is the most impressive athlete on the field.

Burks is listed as a wide receiver, but Briles will continue to get him the ball with handoffs, too. But it’s clear that freshman Raheim Sanders has Burks-like talent, too. He’s 6-2, 210 with the kind of jets that earned him the nickname "Rocket."

That’s the kind of nickname that fits in the SEC. I ache to see a few defensive linemen that deserve nicknames like Beast, Tank or Freak. I’m not sure I saw one, outside of the new coach.

But maybe when pads are added a light switches on and one of those guys turns into The Dude. If there had been a few of those last year, Ashley might still be at Tulsa.

There’s still work to be done with the defensive line at Arkansas, but there were still plenty of positives after the first day of spring drills.

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