Depth can be somewhat of a mirage for college football teams at this point of the season. The way it looks today might be a good bit different than how it is when the season opens.
That’s as true for the Arkansas Razorbacks as it is for any other team in the SEC. Training camp wears on teams. Whether it’s the nagging sort of injuries that have reportedly slowed the development of junior college transfer wide receiver Brandon Martin or the more serious kinds that sidelined outside linebacker Jamario Bell (foot) and wide receiver/running back T.J. Hammonds (knee).
Two of the Razorbacks’ best players in wide receiver Jared Cornelius and linebacker Dre Greenlaw came into camp with lingering injuries from the offseason.
Greenlaw is practicing, but is being held out of team drills in hopes of not aggravating a foot injury that required surgery after the Belk Bowl.
Cornelius’ back stiffness forced Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema to take him off Arkansas’ 105-man roster. The NCAA only allows 105 players to practice before classes begin. Classes begin on Aug. 21, just 10 days before the Razorbacks open their season Aug. 31 against Florida A&M at Little Rock in War Memorial Stadium.
That has to be concerning for Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and his staff. Cornelius is the only wide receiver with enough playing time to be considered experienced. Arkansas has more experience at linebacker, but Greenlaw is the only one that has made a considerable impact, and he missed the last half of the 2016 regular season with a foot injury.
But injuries are just a fact of life in football. Arkansas’ new linebacker coach Chad Walker noted after the loss of Bell earlier in the week that the attitude is “next up.”
For teams loaded with talent depth, that’s not a bad option. Alabama can withstand injuries. Sometimes the guy who is next in line turns out to be even better than the player he replaced. He just needed the opportunity to prove it.
That can be the case at Arkansas, too, but it is more of a surprise when it happens. Greenlaw is a case in point. When he was recruited as a safety out of Fayetteville High School two seasons ago, the potential was there, but no one expected him to become a starter at linebacker early in his freshman year. It wasn’t a perfect situation. Greenlaw has said he was confused most of the time, but his natural ability came to the fore.
It looks like the Razorbacks might have to count on some unexpected help from players this season, too, particularly at wide receiver. With Cornelius and Hammonds out for the time being, the remaining three weeks of preseason practice gives their mates at wide receiver plenty of opportunities to gain the trust of Bielema, offensive coordinator Dan Enos, and quarterback Austin Allen.
The speed of red-shirt freshman receiver Jordan Jones flashed last week in early practices, but this week sophomore La’Micheal Pettway has responded to a challenge issued by Bielema that older receivers need to make plays or they might get passed up by the freshmen.
The competition at wide receiver should be stiff for wide receivers coach Michael Smith, who uses a six-man rotation. When Cornelius is healthy, pencil him in as a starter. Sophomore Deon Stewart and junior college transfer Jonathan Nance have reportedly been solid, too. But picture could be very different by the time the season opener rolls around.
As for linebacker, that position is a key concern with the Razorbacks’ transitioning to a 3-4 defense. Coming out of spring, Karl Roesler was penciled in as a starter at one of the outside linebacker spots, but he has been slowed by injury as well.
Talented depth seems dicey at linebacker, but with Roesler and Greenlaw limited, the other linebackers should get more practice time. De’Jon Harris seems to have locked down the inside linebacker spot beside Greenlaw, but it would be outstanding benefit for the Hogs if Dwayne Eugene is able to make an impact as a senior.
Eugene has had a hard-luck career with opportunities that never came to fruition. Maybe this will be the year where it comes together for him and he can give the Hogs some depth.
Bielema noted at SEC Media Days that while the team isn’t loaded with stars, his 2017 roster from top to bottom is the best he has had at Arkansas. Let’s hope that talent and depth shows on the field this season.
The picture for what the Razorbacks will or won’t be this season will begin to clear over the next two weeks with scrimmages on the next two Saturdays.
It’s always interesting to note the shifts in the depth chart following those scrimmages. Saturday’s scrimmage is closed to the public, but on the Aug. 12 scrimmage will be open as a part of Fan Day.
With the spring rains forcing the Razorbacks to go with an indoor practice rather than their usual Red-White game, that Aug. 12 scrimmage will be the fans’ first real look at the team in general and the 3-4 defense in particular.
It’s going to be interesting to compare how the Hogs line up in that scrimmage to what we see on Aug. 31 against Florida A&M.