Clay Henry is the publisher and executive editor of Hawgs Illustrated. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and its All-America Committee, voter for the Heisman Trophy and has been inducted into the Arkansas Sportswriters and Sportscasters Hall of Fame.
State of the Hogs:
Razorbacks bigger, deeper this spring
Arkansas coach Sam Pittman is shown prior to a scrimmage Saturday, March 20, 2021, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — Most anyone who has seen a football game in the modern era would leave Sam Pittman’s first spring scrimmage Saturday aching for a better passing game.
There was no polish among any of the quarterbacks vying to replace Feleipe Franks.
But that’s about what I expected as I settled into my seat as KJ Jefferson struggled with his fastball about the same way Peyton Pallette did Friday night in a horrible SEC baseball opener.
Jefferson was a bit wild, as were most of the other quarterbacks who followed in a two-hour scrimmage at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in front of about 2,000 fans.
Protections were off — and that was sometimes the fault of running backs and tight ends – as the quarterbacks misfired with all three units. They couldn’t handle a defense that has added much more blitzes with linebackers and safeties setting up four-, five- and six-man pressures.
Mostly, the ball went to the wrong spots, especially early when Pittman said quarterbacks “held the ball too long” and missed open receivers.
None of that surprises anyone who has seen early spring scrimmages. It’s what is to be expected.
The good news is that the Razorbacks don’t play a game for almost six months. Offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, who also coaches quarterbacks, has a lot of time. And, there is a lot to work with in KJ Jefferson, Malik Hornsby, Lucas Coley, Kade Renfro and John Stephen Jones.
All got a chance at quarterback Saturday. All wore black jerseys, meaning they were not to be tackled. Sacks – and there were a lot of them – consisted of a reach and a touch by a defender.
So a lot of plays were blown dead that may have resulted in positive plays in a scramble drill. There is some ability to make defenders miss in most in this crop of QBs.
That’s not really what I wanted to watch. I tried to focus on where I think the Hogs needed depth last year. They are like most in the SEC, too thin to stay with the top 15 teams in the country, including SEC teams like Alabama, Florida and Georgia.
Pittman could field a solid first team at the start of last season, but as injuries – or covid-19 absences – took a toll, it became a struggle. Two or three injuries changed what the Hogs could do in critical situations.
So are the Hogs better in the areas they were too thin last year? Do they have more than Grant Morgan and Bumper Pool at linebacker? Do they have two sets in the offensive line? What about running back?
What I saw Saturday gives hope for the future. There were glimpses of talent on both the second and third team, although not with consistency.
I was most interested in the progress at linebacker where Morgan and Pool had to play every down or the Hogs were in trouble last year.
The backups there now are Andrew Parker and Dede Edwards and neither sparkled Saturday, although Pittman said there have been positive signs from both this spring. When Hornsby or Coley broke the pocket, they didn’t display crisp reactions.
I did see possible help on the third team. Freshman Chris Paul has the frame and first-step reaction of a linebacker. He’s not ready yet as far as his body, perhaps too heavy.
“Our linebackers as a whole are improving big time,” Pittman said.
Nicknamed "Pooh," Paul is starting to make a move.
“When (Paul) came in he was out of shape and I didn’t know if he could run,” Pittman said. “I mean, he couldn’t figure it out in the offseason until about the last two weeks. But he’s thick now. He’s heavy, big, smart.
“I think he’s going to be a really good player in the future if he continues to work.”
There’s help coming in the offensive line. Back-up left tackle Marcus Henderson can handle most situations in the run game and has some quickness to be a good pass protector. He sealed the outside on some outside runs Saturday, most notable when newly added running back Raheim "Rocket" Sanders made a cut to the sideline.
Offensive guard Jalen St. John (6-5, 359 pounds) can move the pile and will likely mature into another keeper as Pittman continues a move to thicker linemen. Massive tackle Ty’Kiest Crawford didn’t scrimmage because of a minor injury, but Pittman likes his potential, too.
Sanders is a mid-term arrival from Rockledge, Fla., with background at wide receiver. At 6-2, 210 and still filling out, Pittman imagines Sanders as the big back with speed that the Hogs have lacked for several years.
“He is wonderful kid, a hard worker and...very meticulously in how he handles his business,” Pittman said. “I thought he played well today. We moved him to running back Day 1. I don’t know that was necessarily the thought when we recruited him, but we need a big back.
“He is still struggling in pass protection. I am not about the physicality of it, but understanding protections. Man, how valuable spring ball is for those kids. I think we have found a really nice player.”
Sanders displayed great vision on some inside runs and the ability to bounce to the outside while running with a lean. His speed in the open field is obvious.
The secondary is much deeper than recent seasons. Ability to cover has improved. Safety play has improved by leaps and bounds. That’s where the depth of the team has made a move. Mid-term arrival Jayden Johnson will play early. He looks to be in the 210 range, big for a true freshman.
“Johnson is running with the twos,” Pittman said. “Big, big, heavy, smart guy that it’s important to him.”
There was plenty to make you smile. With covid-19 wiping out last spring and the access to any full practice in the fall, it was just good to see full contact.
The word from Pittman was that Morgan is full speed after sustaining a knee injury against Missouri. The slithery inside linebacker made plays all over the field Saturday, just like he did last year. So did Pool.
It’s fun to see Treylon Burks full speed. He battled injuries for most of last season. He was more demonstrative in calling for the football when he broke underneath safeties against zone coverage. That’s just natural leadership.
Burks clapped his hands as he made one cut, letting Hornsby know that he was open. Hornsby went elsewhere with the ball, an obvious mistake. Burks should always be the first option.
Jefferson showed his maturity a few plays later, finding Burks breaking across the back of the end zone against an overmatched defensive back (and that’s always the case).
Among the other players on the field who looked like true men: junior college transfer Jalen Williams and fifth-year super senior Myron Cunningham. Williams is at nose tackle, and Cunningham, a team captain and left offensive tackle, now looks like a beast at over 330 pounds.
There is some obvious maturation in the roster. Defensive linemen Taurean Carter, Mataio Soli, Zach Williams and Eric Gregory all look thicker and stronger in their play. Dorian Gerald is an older player who showed pass-rush skill.
That’s a bunch that has a new coach in Jermial Ashley. There were times the offensive line controlled things in the running game with Trelon Smith and Sanders. Did the physicality of the day please Pittman?
“I think so,” Pittman said. “You know, to be honest with you, and again I haven’t seen (tape), but at least on the field it looked like we ran the ball pretty well with the 1s on offense.
“I don’t know that, but it felt that way. I know the defense stepped up and had a nice third-and-2 stop on the offensive line, but I felt like we ran the ball a little bit better than what I even expected that we might.
“Our defensive line is a work in progress. We’ve got a heck of a coach coaching them in Coach Ashley, and I think they’re going to get better, but they work their butt off, so I anticipate them getting much better.
“They had several sacks. We’ve just got to get better at stopping the run in there, and we’ve got to get help with on the edge coming up a little bit faster to turn the ball into our linebackers."
Work in progress is the right description. That’s what you get with a first scrimmage.
It was at least fun to see it.
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