Saturday’s a big day for more reasons than one for Arkansas’ football team. While third-year head coach Bret Bielema makes hitting a part of every padded practice, tackling to the ground is another story. It’s assumed Saturday’s scrimmage will be the first totally live tackling practice of the preseason.
With live tackling, the risk for injury expands exponentially, and while Bielema is one of the leading advocates of player safety in the NCAA ranks, the Razorbacks have to tackle to get prepared for the season.
However, don’t expect for him to beat up backs Jonathan Williams or Alex Collins before the season gets underway, but even an experienced offensive line has to get in some real work before the opener on Sept. 5 against UTEP. Plus depth behind the established starters is a question mark for coach Sam Pittman’s crew.
It’s even more important for Robb Smith’s defenders to see live action. Tackling is a craft that must be practiced, and the linebacker and safety are positions where not only depth but also the play of the starters remains a concern this preseason. Bielema and Smith, his defensive coordinator, are confident Brooks Ellis (6-2, 237) will pick up where Martrell Spaight left off at weakside linebacker, but consistency still seems to be a concern for Khalia Hackett (6-2, 232) at middle linebacker and even with returning starter Josh Williams (6-1, 243) at strongside linebacker.
There also seems to be a competitive battle for the backup weakside spot brewing between Dwayne Eugene (6-1, 236) and Fayetteville freshman Dre Greenlaw (6-2, 229). Sophomore free safety Josh Lidell (6-1, 209) looks like a promising performer at the spot, but mistakes at his spot can cost a touchdown. He needs live work to be able to make the best defensive calls for his teammates and reads at the critical position.
From comments made by Bielema and his assistants, most of the starters are in place, but lining up the quality depth behind them remains an issue. Saturday is a time for newcomers and freshmen to show what they have got. There may be as much as a week of work or more before the Hogs break down the squad for scout teams, but this scrimmage will likely play a big role in deciding which of the young ones are ready to help the team this season and which ones will go on a more developmental path.
It’s unfortunate to hear that Raleigh Williams III (5-10, 215) wore a green jersey in Thursday’s practice. The Hogs do need a third tailback to emerge with Kody Walker carrying close to 260 pounds, and the freshman from Dallas seemed to be a likely candidate. Hopefully he will be ready to go.
Likewise the Hogs have three freshmen tight ends in Will Gragg (6-4, 255), Austin Cantrell (6-4, 250) and Fayetteville native C.J. O’Grady (6-4, 240). How many will play this year? Tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. has said the Razorback could travel five to six tight ends because they will be using three in various sets this fall. Are all three ready to help this year or do one or two of them need a redshirt year to develop?
It would seem there is natural separation between the quarterbacks behind third-year starter Brandon Allen (6-2, 210) of Fayetteville, but if redshirt freshman Rafe Peavey (6-2, 203) or true freshman Ty Storey (6-2, 215) are going to make a move on the backup spot now occupied by sophomore Austin Allen (6-1, 210), the scrimmage would be the place to start doing it.
It will be interesting to see if there are changes to the depth chart following the scrimmage. Such changes are usually are for the better because they are determined by live performance. But sometimes injuries are the culprit. Hopefully the Hogs can avoid that as much as possible.
The scrimmage is set for 2:25 p.m. on Saturday, and is open to members of the Razorback Foundation.