Freshmen to have an impact for Razorbacks

Arkansas freshman punter Blake Johnson practices during a Los Angeles Times video shoot in 2014.

Los Angeles Times / YouTube

The No. 18 Arkansas Razorbacks put the wraps on preseason camp last Saturday with a closed-to-the-public scrimmage between the first and second teams. When the Hogs next practice on Tuesday, they will begin the slow walk toward their Sept. 5 season opener against Texas El-Paso at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

Why slow? There are still two weeks of practice before the first game. No doubt Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema and his staff will put the extra time to good use, but by now the Razorbacks have to be champing at the bit to actually play the game.

However, it’s not a bad thing that the Razorbacks have a week to settle into classes before the season opener. Yes, classes started at the UA today, and even for the veteran players, the opening of a new semester is a bit of an adjustment. It’s even more daunting for Arkansas’ freshmen. Even though they were able to go through a summer session in July, there is a different rhythm to summer classes than those in fall and spring.

It’s actually easier to fall behind in the fall or spring than in the summer because the pace seems slower in the beginning, but can snowball fast for those who get lulled asleep early in the semester.

The demands on football players in season are so much more than in the off-season. I truly marvel at the time-management skills displayed by most student athletes. The work they do in season for their sport is as physically and mentally draining as just about any 40-hour a week job a person of their age could work. In recent years there has been talk of making freshmen ineligible once again like they were in college athletics through the 1960s.

Academically it’s probably a great idea, but in reality, it’s not going to happen unless the NCAA increases the number of scholarships programs are allowed to offer. With a sport like football where injuries and attrition is practically built into the game, most teams can’t afford to have nearly a quarter of their 105-man roster unavailable on Saturdays.

Even the best-stocked programs can’t keep their best freshmen off the field. Some players are just naturally too talented to automatically hold back. How would Bielema feel right now if freshman tailback Rawleigh Williams were on campus but couldn’t play? How dejected would Williams feel knowing he could help the team, but he was unable to have the chance?

Besides, the very best players are going to exit college for the chance to play in the NFL after their junior years. No coach wants to risk giving up two years of a talented player’s eligibility. Too much time and work goes into wooing those players to campus in the first place to not get the most out of them.

While losing freshman eligibility could benefit the student aspect of the “student-athlete,” college football on the whole would suffer. One of the key reasons why many high school recruits select the programs they do is for the opportunity at early playing time.

A charismatic coach like Bielema might be able to persuade a running back like Alex Collins or an offensive linemen like Denver Kirkland from the Sunshine State to pick Arkansas over programs like Florida, Florida State or Miami if the possibility of early playing time exists On the Hill but not necessarily in those programs closer to home.

If all freshmen were ineligible, powerhouse programs located in key recruiting areas would likely stockpile even more talent. It doesn’t make as much sense for a recruit to travel so far from home if he has to sit out his entire first season no matter the situation.

It will be interesting to see how many freshmen help the Razorbacks this season. The Hogs do have an experienced team, but several freshmen are already on its two-deep chart, and as the season wears on, more could come to the fore.

Punter Blake Johnson (6-0, 175) of Long Beach, Calif., could be the freshman that has the biggest impact on the team. If he nails down the spot, he will play a key roll in setting the table up for defensive coordinator Robb Smith’s troops, who rely greatly on field position to work on opponents. He boomed punts in Arkansas’ open scrimmage and seemed to have very good hang time. But graduated Sam Irwin Hill became a weapon for Arkansas, landing punts softly so they could be downed inside the 15-yard line. Only time will tell if Johnson has a similar touch.

The aforementioned Rawleigh Williams (5-10, 215) likely would have played some this season before Jonathan Williams suffered a season-ending ankle injury, but now he becomes a key fixture in the offense behind Collins and Kody Walker.

Hjalte Froholdt (6-4, 299) of Svendborg, Denmark is a second-teamer on the defensive line, but will be counted on to rotate up front. He will likely see nearly as much playing time starting nose guard Marcus Hodge, possibly more because of his versatility.

Dre Greenlaw (6-0, 222) of Fayetteville has worked himself into a back-up spot at weakside linebacker. The Razorbacks are going to want junior team captain Brooks Ellis, also from Fayetteville, on the field for as many plays as possible, but Greenlaw no doubt will occupy spots on most special teams and could figure into other situations.

Ryan Pulley (5-10, 210) of Fort Myers, Fla., is just outside of the Razorbacks two-deep chart at cornerback, but there is little doubt that he will play this year in the increasingly pass-happy SEC. Having a fifth cornerback whom secondary coach Clay Jennings isn’t afraid to deploy makes an already strong position for Arkansas even stronger.

Zach Rogers (6-1, 310) of Carrollton, Texas, and Josh Allen (6-2, 300) of Jacksonville, Fla. are freshman offensive linemen Bielema and offensive line coach Sam Pittman hope they do not have to play this season, but if injuries mount, they could be pressed into early duty.

C.J. O’Grady (6-4, 240) of Fayetteville, Austin Cantrell (6-4, 250) of Roland, Okla., and Will Gragg (6-4, 255) of Dumas are a trio of freshmen at tight ends who could help the Razorbacks this season. Cantrell, who fits the H-back roll, might be the most likely candidate, but O’Grady and Gragg have both earned praise from Bielema in the preseason. Tight ends coach Barry Lunney said five tight ends would likely travel this season, and of course injuries could press all three into service.

With the season opener less than two weeks away, it should become more clear exactly which freshmen are in the plans early in the season, but don’t be surprised if all mentioned and a few more don’t make a contribution on the field this fall.