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.
Razorback Report: Lengthy scrimmage set for Saturday
Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson throws Thursday, March 30, 2023, during practice at the university practice facility in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas Razorbacks will conduct spring football practice No. 8 today, and it promises to be a physical affair.
Coach Sam Pittman said the Razorbacks will scrimmage extensively, giving each of three units on both sides of the ball roughly 50 live snaps for a total of 150 plays, plus assorted kicking game work.
The practice will be closed to members of the media and there is no post-workout interviewing scheduled, so details and perspective from the session will have to wait until Tuesday’s next interview opportunity.
With new coordinators on both sides of the ball in Dan Enos and Travis Williams and installation on the go through the first seven of 15 spring practices, this scrimmage is a key milestone for Pittman’s fourth-year staff.
The long scrimmage will feature good on good work, but not at the start.
“We will play the 1s versus 2s to start, 2s versus 1s and 3s versus 3s for 12-15 plays, and there will be punts involved in that,” Pittman said, adding field goals would also be on tap.
“When we get through with that we’ll come back and go 1s versus 1s, and 2s versus 2s, 3s versus 3s. When we get done with that, we’ll go in situations, which will be third down. A little bit of situational third down. There will be a situation of red area.”
Quarterbacks will be off limits, as always, but tackling to the ground will take place. The Razorbacks worked in shoulder pads and shorts Wednesday in their final prelude before the heavy work day.
Pittman said installation will slow down late next week, though situational additions will still go on.
Another area of focus for today’s scrimmage is going to be a first for Sam Pittman.
It involves the growing importance of going on fourth down in order to keep the ball, which is on the rise throughout football. In order to increase his willingness to do that more often, the Razorbacks will turn it into the practice of calling third-down plays with the idea that going on fourth down is likely.
“This year for the first time I’m going to practice third down, play fourth,” Pittman said. “I think I’ve become a guy that’s afraid — or not afraid but concerned — about going for it on fourth down. The only way I’m going to find out if I’m willing to do that is play third and go for it on fourth. I’ve never done that before, but I’m going to do that.”
Arkansas converted 9 of 20 fourth-down chances last year to tie for 91st in the FBS with a 45% conversion rate. That ratio ranked 12th in the SEC, ahead of only Vanderbilt (37.9%) and Texas A&M (36.4%) and far behind league leaders like Georgia (86.7%), Tennessee (66.7%), Kentucky (61.5%) and Alabama (60%). Eight SEC teams converted half their fourth down plays or better.
The Razorbacks’ 20 attempts on fourth down tied for 94th in the country.
“It’s just like two minute. You can’t be confident in how you handle your two minutes unless you practice it,” Pittman said. “Well, we practice it all the time. I’m looking to see if the offense will give me enough confidence to … I’m not ever going to be Lane [Kiffin] at Ole Miss and it has worked out well for him or the late Mike Leach. Obviously he was willing to do that. I don’t think I will ever get to that point, but I want to get to the point to where if I feel like it’s the right time and things of that nature, and I’m very confident in what we’re running, I want to get to that point.”
After lead tailback Raheim “Rocket” Sanders went out with a minor ankle injury early in the Liberty Bowl, ending his season at 222 carries for 1,443 yards, he and fellow back Dominique Johnson got to watch Rashod Dubinion pile up 112 rushing yards and 2 scores and AJ Green total 99 yards and 1 touchdown to bolster MVP KJ Jefferson’s 130 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns.
“That was great,” Sanders said of the 211 combined yards for Green and Dubinion. “I had a lot of confidence in them, you know what I mean?”
Arkansas downed Kansas 55-53 in triple overtime in the game, rushing for 394 yards in the process.
“I feel like Coach [Jimmy Smith] prepared me, prepared those guys in practice for times like that,” Sanders said. “Every player is not guaranteed for a play so at the end of the day. I had a lot of confidence in them. Dom as well. Me and him were talking over there during the game about it and I feel like they had a chip on their shoulder and had to show everyone what they were about.”
Snaxx, Brax and Q
Returning cornerback Dwight McGlothern talked up two newcomers at the spot in Baylor transfer Lorando “Snaxx” Johnson and freshman Jaylon Braxton, who have been getting first- and second-team work in team periods, along with himself and sophomore Quincey McAdoo.
“Snaxx looks good,” McGlothern said Thursday. “He’s a very physical player, and me as well as him are learning with the new coaches.
“We’ve been very ‘clamp’ I’ll say, lock-down corners, you know? So it’s good having someone on the other side across from me clamp as well. Then, plus, we have Quincey as well, so you’ll see a lot of players clamp at that position, for sure.”
Braxton has been among the most impressive freshman signees.
“Jaylon Braxton, I’m excited for him,” McGlothern said. “He’s a good player. He’s young and ready to learn.
“He’s getting better every day since Day 1. … Soon you’ll see a next DB behind Quincey, me and Snaxx.”
I’s have it
The rise of redshirt freshman Isaiah Sategna and senior Isaac TeSlaa in spring workouts has been evident.
Sategna, a Fayetteville High School product, has been working mostly with the second team in the slot behind Bryce Stephens, but he’s gotten reps with the starters and his production is clearly up.
In addition to Stephens, Sam Mbake and transfer Andrew Armstrong, Sategna and TeSlaa have provided some of the best catches during the media viewing portions of practice with would-be contributors Jaedon Wilson (broken leg) and Tyrone Broden (knee) sidelined.
“Just playing with more confidence, knowing that any position is up,” tailback Raheim Sanders said to describe how Sategna has been performing. “I feel like he’s one of the guys that’s going to show his talent this year and he’s definitely showing it in spring.”
Sam Pittman has repeatedly praised the work ethic of freshman twins Luke Hasz and Dylan Hasz of Bixby, Okla., and the production of the tight end, Luke, has been a recurring theme during his news conferences this spring.
“He’s a really good route runner, he’s exceptional catching the football and when he has it in his hand he’s hard to tackle,” Pittman said. “It just seems like every day he has 6, 8, 10 catches in some type of team setting. He gets open and catches everything that’s close to him. I’ve been really, really pleased with him.”
Luke Hasz is listed at 6-3, 226 pounds, so playing in-line tight end with the accompanying blocking duties will be an on-going process for him.
“We have to continue working on his blocking,” Pittman said. “He doesn’t have the biggest stature. He’s not the biggest tight end, but he’s willing and he’s capable.
“He’s willing and very, very strong. He comes from a great high school program of lifting. We’ve just got to get a little bit of weight on him.”
11 years gone
The 11th anniversary of former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino’s motorcycle wreck with young staffer Jessica Dorrell aboard is today.
Then-UA Athletic Director Jeff Long fired Petrino for cause nine days later and the fortunes of Razorback football and Petrino have both gone through peaks and valleys since as they remain somewhat intertwined.
For the second year in a row, Arkansas will face a Petrino offense this fall in the Southwest Classic on Sept. 30 in Arlington, Texas. Petrino left his head coaching position at Missouri State in the winter to become offensive coordinator at UNLV with former Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom. However, 20 days later, he resigned to take the offensive coordinator post at Texas A&M for Jimbo Fisher.
The Razorbacks had to rally from a 10-point fourth quarter deficit to down Petrino’s Missouri State Bears 38-27 on Sept. 17.
Pro Day tips
The Razorbacks have an intriguing NFL Draft class, headlined by linebacker Drew Sanders but also dotted with potential picks who offer value.
Receiver Jadon Haselwood said after the Hogs’ Pro Day on Wednesday he’s gotten great feedback from NFL teams.
“That I’m a good football player, that I’m a good guy,” Haselwood said. “I’m not one of those guys that has problems off the field. Every scout said they love my game and how physical I play and things like that. Just trying to continue to improve that, get back to work and sharpen my tools.”
Sixth-year standout tackle Dalton Wagner spoke positively and like an open book about his draft preparation, which has included stints at the East-West Shrine game and the NFL Scouting Combine.
“You definitely learn a lot about how the NFL is run,” he said. “It’s a lot different than college. It’s a shorter leash on mistakes is the biggest thing I picked up on.
“They really, really emphasize mental IQ and the playbook is a lot more complicated too. But nothing … I can’t handle. It was a very, very awesome time.”
Some of the best numbers from testing included 37-inch vertical jumps for Haselwood, receiver Matt Landers and Sanders, 33 reps on the 250-pound bench press from Terry Hampton and 32 from former Hog Bijhon Jackson. Sanders was timed at 4.59 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
Landers and Wagner both played in the Liberty Bowl, while Haselwood, Sanders and Stromberg did not. Landers, who had 3 catches for 121 yards and a touchdown in the Hogs’ 55-53 win, said he had something to gain by playing in the post season.
“You know me, last college football game, I just wanted to go out with a bang, you know, go out with a win,” Landers said. “The game before, we lost. I hate going out losing, so I just felt like anything I could do to help the team win and help myself, it’d be good.”
Former Arkansas linebacker Bumper Pool, who is nearly ready to resume workouts after having surgery on both hips, talked to scouts. The NFL Network reported Pool, Arkansas’ all-time tackles leader with 441, would be a top 30 visit for the Carolina Panthers.
Big leg Bates
Jake Bates, the Hogs’ kickoff specialist last season, showed off his outstanding leg during Wednesday’s Pro Day workouts at the Walker Pavilion.
Bates was perfect on a large range of field goals until he pulled a 58-yarder wide left. He bounced back to put a 63-yarder down the middle with at least five yards to spare, then a try from 67 yards appeared on the money until it scraped a ceiling fan blade high atop the pavilion. Bates pulled his next try from 67 yards wide to the left again.
The 5-10, 202-pounder from Tomball, Texas, who transferred from Texas State for 2022, then went outdoors and showed his kickoff prowess with a series of boots, giving his right leg a considerable workout.
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