HOGS open spring with questions
FAYETTEVILLE - Arkansas coach Sam Pittman can identify all his Razorbacks without a program Tuesday when the UA opens spring camp.
The second-year head coach couldn’t do that last spring when he spent the off-season on the recruiting road after his December hiring, and covid-19 protocol killed spring drills.
“That’s a positive,” Pittman said Monday. “My biggest fear last year is you guys were going to ask me about somebody that I had no clue who he was, but you were very kind and didn’t do that. In other words: A year ago, we were guessing about what position to put a kid.”
For the most part the staff knows who’s going where this spring, although it will drill some players at different positions during the 14 practices that conclude with the April 17 Red vs. White game.
“I think we learned last year because of covid, injuries, opt-outs, that we used different kids a lot,” Pittman said. “We were ready for that because of the way we practiced, and we two-spotted and moved kids.”
Covid remains a concern. All practices, starting with this week’s non-contact drills Tuesday and Thursday, are closed prior to the spring game.
With 2020 Arkansas quarterback Feleipe Franks auditioning for NFL scouts at Wednesday’s Arkansas Pro Day, KJ Jefferson, who started in the season finale 50-48 loss at Missouri, opens at QB with second-year freshman Malik Hornsby contesting. Hornsby triggered a few goal-line situations last season.
The staff will also evaluate John Stephen Jones, starting a game two years ago under former UA coach Chad Morris, December-signee freshman Lucas Coley and Ole Miss transfer Kade Renfro.
“Right now K.J.’s our starter, and we certainly anticipate a really nice battle,” Pittman said. “All that’s going to do is make them better. And the kids understand it. It’ll make K.J. better. It’ll make Malik better. It’ll make Coley, Renfro, John Stephen, it’ll make everybody better.”
Franks’ tangibles and intangibles last fall during Arkansas’ 3-7 season cannot be discounted. But as far as the run-pass dual-threat QB that offensive coordinator Kendal Briles would recruit, Jefferson and Hornsby better fit the mobility specifications.
“Kendal’s offense - and I’ve watched it on tape before he was hired - I think who we have at quarterback right now is probably tailored to his offense a little bit more than even Feleipe was.” Pittman said. “Because Feleipe was what I’m going to call a surprising runner. He ran better than what I thought he would. These guys are certainly capable of being a running back as well. They can all throw or they wouldn’t be here. So, I think it will be more of Kendal putting in everything in his offense that he can vs. some of the the things he may not have had last year because of Feleipe and our depth chart.”
Franks brought instant credibility last winter when he transferred from Florida as a former starting QB. Jefferson earned some cred at Mizzou by completing 18 for 33 passes for 274 yards and three touchdowns with a rushing TD.
“The team believes in him,” Pittman said. “Heck, I believe in him. He's done a nice job. His work ethic has shown leadership in itself, and he's becoming more vocal. He’s vocal as he needs to be. Feleipe wasn’t a very vocal guy, either, but his work ethic was, and that’s the same way with KJ.”
As a group, the raft of returning receivers led by junior Treylon Burks, (51 catches, 820 yards and seven TDs) leads the offense, Pittman said.
With repeated concussions and knee injuries compelling promising offensive tackle Noah Gatlin to retire, much of the line’s focus this spring rivets on University of Charlotte transfer Ty’Kieast Crawford (6-3, 335). He should compete with incumbent Dalton Wagner at right tackle, while senior Myron Cunningham returns at left tackle.
“I like Crawford,” longtime former offensive line coach Pittman said. “A big, ole kid who can move.”
Starting center Ricky Stromberg, starting guards Brady Latham and senior Ty Clary, senior tight end Blake Kern and TE Hudson Henry return. Pittman prefers Clary, the starting center in 2019 doubling as starting guard and backup center last year, to concentrate on guard.
“Our plan is to play (senior) Shane Clenin a little bit more at center and try to take a little pressure of the combination of Ty Clary playing guard and center and maybe let him develop better at guard,” Pittman said.
Arkansas’ best running backs, Trelon Smith (26 carries for 172 yards at Missouri) and extra year senior T.J. Hammonds, are smaller scatbacks. So, true freshman Raheim “Rocket” Sanders (6-2, 210) has moved to running back.
“Obviously, Smith (Arkansas’ leading rusher with 710 yards last season) has earned that spot, and we're going to let him go and see if he can continue to improve on what he has done this far." Pittman said.
The defense returns a veteran secondary led by safety Jalen Catalon, last year’s only collegian with both 95-plus tackles and three interceptions, and a veteran linebacking corps led by All-SEC senior linebacker Grant Morgan.
However, the pass rush must improve, Pittman said. Dropping eight defenders helped the Hogs early last fall against passing teams, especially stifling Mississippi State coach Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” attack, but came at a late-season price vs. QBs allowed too much time to throw.
“I think we're going to have to bring five at times,” Pittman said. “We sat back and rushed three. I think we're going to have change up what we do on first down at times. We've got to put a team in the hole, and we didn't do that on a consistent basis last year. We’ve got to find a pass rush.”
Pittman only listed four players, all coming off surgeries, as unable to practice this spring. They are receiver/kick returner De’vion Warren, Koilan Jackson, Collin Sutherland and linebacker Levi Draper.