Hogs’ scrimmage sets course for improvement before opener

Sophomore wide receiver La’Michael Pettway / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

With the first scrimmage of preseason camp in the books, the Arkansas Razorbacks continue to inch their way toward their Aug. 31 season opener against Florida A&M.

With Sunday being the Razorbacks players mandated day off, Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema and his assistants no doubt spent much of their day breaking down all the details from the recordings of the scrimmage. Arkansas’ assistants likely know the footage of their positions like the back of their hand by now, and the work the Hogs do over the next few days will reflect what they saw.

No doubt, Arkansas’ coaches saw things they liked, and of course, things they didn’t.

Scrimmage footage can be bittersweet. Take for instance the 74-yard scamper by true freshman running back Chase Hayden. It was an eye-catching, head-turning run by all accounts. However, it also came against the first-team defense.

It’s great to have a highly recruited freshman running back show out with a fantastic run. On the strength of that carry, Hayden led all rushers with 112 yards on 16 carries.

However, the run felt all too familiar to last year to Bielema. He witnessed the Razorbacks give up 205 yards rushing per game last season, 39 rushing touchdowns, and way too many long runs.

Bielema’s first reference to the run at Arkansas’ Media Day was when he said he wanted to see what happened on the run, meaning how did the starting defense allow the second-string offense to embarrass them in such a manner.

Hayden has the makings of a fine running back, but there had to have been a defensive breakdown that allowed him to get loose like that.

Correcting that breakdown now could be the difference in winning or losing at some point this fall.

Hayden’s big play, at least initially, was deemed a bit different than the 45-yard, one-handed touchdown catch by freshman wide receiver Koilan Jackson over starting cornerback Ryan Pulley, the Hogs’ best cover man and perhaps best defender overall.

Pulley had good coverage, but Jackson just made an athletic play on a well-thrown ball by fifth-string quarterback Carson Proctor. Proctor completed 3 of 4 passes for 61 yards and the TD in the scrimmage.

That one play didn’t really make Bielema worry about a proven performer like Pulley, but it did add another piece of evidence to Jackson’s case for playing time this fall.

Jackson, who is the son of NFL and College Football Hall of Famer Keith Jackson, isn’t the only receiver who made big plays on Saturday.

After being called out by Bielema last weekend, third-year sophomore La’Michael Pettway turned up the intensity last week in practice. He scorched the back-up defense with 5 catches for 166 yards and a touchdown.

It was just a scrimmage, but Pettway’s performance should give him confidence he continues to develop into for being a key contributor for the Razorbacks this season after mostly watching his first two years on campus.

Senior quarterback Austin Allen threw all five of the passes Pettway caught. It was a sterling practice by the fifth-year senior, whom the Razorbacks’ hopes rest upon this season.

Allen completed 19 of 22 passes for 305 yards. It might or might not be concerning that Allen only threw one touchdown pass.

While the Razorbacks do seem to have an improved attitude on defense, it stands to reason Arkansas will need to score points in bundles this season to keep pace with opponents.

Allen might have to be even more prolific in the passing game this year than last when he led the SEC in passing yardage, based on what we saw of the running game.

The Hogs had some good runs with Devwah Whaley gaining 78 yards on 16 carries and transfer David Williams picking up 51 on 11 carries, but it still remains to be seen what kind of short-yardage team the Hogs will be this year. Williams lost yardage on several runs.

Arkansas offensive coordinator said Friday short-yardage situations is something the Hogs haven’t worked on much as of yet with the installation of the offense, so Saturday’s results might have given off a false impression.

With that said, Arkansas struggled in the short-yardage game last fall, both on the goal line and in just moving the chains. The Razorbacks can’t afford to do so again this year, if they hope to improve on last year’s 7-6 mark.

Defensively, two young linebackers stood out in Giovanni La’France and Grant Morgan, who is the brother of former Hog receiver Drew Morgan.

Neither is pegged to start this year, but their play did stand out Saturday. Morgan made 3.5 tackles for 12 yards in losses, and La’France had 3 stops for 6 yards in losses.

However, scrimmages are just practice. They can create false impressions to the untrained eye of a reporter or fan. Not everything is always as the statistics seem to show.

Scrimmages are for ferretting out a team’s weaknesses so improvement can be made. They are also about improving strengths and ascertaining any improvements made by newcomers and maturing players.

The Razorbacks have the better part of four weeks of practice before opening the season against Florida A&M at War Memorial Stadium.

Much will change before then. Hopefully those changes will be positive for the Hogs.