Razorback scrimmage to set tone for season

Rakeem Boyd was placed on the Earl Campbell Tyler Rose Award Watch List, which recognizes the top offensive D1 player from Texas. / ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Today is a big day for Sam Pittman’s first Arkansas Razorbacks football squad. This afternoon the Hogs will hold what stands to be their final major scrimmage of the preseason, and what happens today will go a long way in setting the stage for the Razorbacks’ initial starting lineup.

The Hogs are three weeks and a day away from their season-opening game Sept. 26 against the No. 4 Georgia Bulldogs in Reynolds Razorback Stadium. On one hand that seems like a long time for those eagerly awaiting the start of the season, but for a first-year coaching staff that was forced to go without spring practice because of the coronavirus, time seems short.

Pittman said it would be the last full-scale scrimmage of fall camp, but he did allow that the Hogs could scrimmage on a limited basis next week if some questions about certain positions aren’t fully answered this afternoon.

In the 1980s, it was common for the the Razorbacks to go through three full scrimmages before breaking fall camp. Of course, back then a big offensive lineman weighed 270 pounds and anyone heavier was huge. In today’s game any interior lineman on either side of the ball that weighs 270 is light.

Danny Ford was an old-school coach and a pupil of the late great Bear Bryant, whom he played offensive tackle for at Alabama in the 1960s. Ford made a name for himself coaching Clemson from 1978-89 and winning a national title in 1981. Ford ran grueling preseason camps at Arkansas with less numbers than he had at Clemson because of NCAA regulations put in place in the early 1990s.

Calling his practices a bloodbath is going too far, but Ford doted on the physical nature of the game, and with fewer numbers and bigger players than he worked with in the 1980s, in hindsight, I’m not so sure he didn’t wear down some of his squads before the season started in a self-defeating effort to make them better.

Houston Nutt took a bit different approach. Don’t get me wrong, Nutt had physical practices and scrimmages at Arkansas, but his approach was to scrimmage as much as a team needed, but then save the rest for the season. Most coaches today follow a similar recipe.

Training camp has to be physical because football is a physical game, but practice and scrimmaging should sharpen a team to a fine point, not grind it down to a nub. Sometimes in the middle of it, it’s hard for a coaching staff to tell the difference.

Nutt knew that and while his tenure at Arkansas ended with off-the-field controversy dictating his departure, he had the most extended success as a Razorback coach in the SEC era.

Yes, Bobby Petrino had a better winning percentage at Arkansas than Nutt, but with the way the Razorbacks talent level dipped upon Petrino’s exit, the program seemed headed for a ditch under him figuratively if Petrino hadn’t beat them to it on his motorcycle literally.

Though the Razorbacks are playing the fewest regular-season games since the 1970s, what stands ahead for the Hogs is the most grueling schedule any Arkansas team has ever faced with a loaded, 10-game, all-SEC schedule.

While the Razorback coaching staff needs to work its squad to improve, they can’t afford to leave it all on the practice field before the season even starts.

So today’s scrimmage is hugely important as the Razorbacks coaching staff makes decisions not only who will start and play key roles as backups, but also which players will stay with the varsity and which ones will work as scout teamers, who replicate the opponent’s offense and defense each week in practice.

Once scout teams are formed, that’s when a team begins to focus on preparing for an opponent rather than working on finding its best answers at each position. Teams do continue to evolve and players do continue improve and move up and down a depth chart based on their performances and injuries, but once scout teams are formed the focus becomes honing in on the game plan.

Players do continue to emerge when teams seek answers in the season. Remember, Matt Jones was on the scout team for the first month of his freshman season in 2001 as a receiver before splitting time with starting quarterback Zak Clark the rest of his freshman season.

But with today’s practice being the final full-scale scrimmage, it’s the best chance for players to make a move up the depth chart or to solidify their spot on the Razorbacks’ initial pecking order.

From what coaches have said in Zoom interviews following practices, this is a big day for the offensive line and the defensive backfield as coaches hope to nail down opening-season starters. From Pittman and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ comments about tight end, some Razorback needs to step forward from the pack to grab ahold of the starting role there.

Reading between the lines of what hasn’t been said, it’s also a big day for the Razorbacks’ linebacker corps, which has been the least talked about position group in post-practice interviews this preseason.

I’m not sure if I should read that as good or bad or indifferent, but a defense can’t hide holes at linebacker very long, especially not in the SEC.

Also looming large over the Razorbacks and the SEC is Labor Day weekend and the coronavirus.

How everyone handles this weekend which is usually packed with gatherings of family and friends will have a bearing on football season even though there are relatively few college games scheduled for this weekend compared to the norm.

After the Memorial Day and Fourth of July holidays, coronavirus numbers sky rocketed. That’s a scary thought considering more than 900 new cases were reported by the state government Thursday.

Infections from this holiday weekend won’t begin to show up until 10 days later. One hopes that folks will play it smart and safe this weekend, but as stated before that’s not what happened on the two previous holidays.

We are so close to getting college football back. I just hope our society doesn’t mess that up by disregarding safety measures during this long weekend.