Saturday’s scrimmage key in sorting out Hogs’ depth for ‘21 season

The Arkansas Razorbacks strapped on the pads for the first time Thursday and will have the first of two live scrimmages this Saturday.

Unfortunately that practice is closed to the fans and media. It’s one I’d like to see, but the days of reporters documenting scrimmages in person are all but gone and have been for a while with the advent of social media.

I still remember hearing a story about NFL Hall of Fame coach Jimmy Johnson rushing into the stands at Razorback Stadium when he was the Hogs’ defensive coordinator in the mid-1970s to confiscate a camera from a guy who was taking shots from the west-side bleachers.

Johnson, reportedly, yanked the camera from the individual, smashed it on the concrete steps, and gave it a stomp or two.

I would guess Johnson assumed the fella was scouting for an opponent. However, knowing the psychological games Johnson liked to play to inspire his players, he might have just done it to break up the monotony of preseason drills.

Today everyone with a cell phone and a YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook account has the ability to give away trade secrets from a football practice, and while I’d dearly love to watch the 125 plays the Razorbacks are going to run on Saturday, I certainly understand why head Razorback coach Sam Pittman prefers the work to be done in private.

I honestly don’t believe I’d appreciate having a bunch of even well-meaning folks watch me write this column as tedious and boring as it would be. Coaches and practicing players likely feel the same way about their work.

That said Saturday’s scrimmage will be the most important Razorback practice so far this season. Its outcome will dictate where the Hogs work for the next week starts.

This is a veteran football team, and while Pittman said he won’t be holding any players back Saturday, that could be the final full-scale scrimmaging some Hogs will see until the ball is put in play at 1 p.m. on Sept. 4 when old Southwest Conference opponent Rice comes to town for the season opener. There is no sense in beating proven players up more than is needed to get the in shape for the season.

The season can get long, and the Razorbacks don’t have an open date until after the eighth playing date of the season.

That doesn’t mean Saturday’s scrimmage won’t be a physical affair. It just means the coaching staff will be careful with proven Razorbacks like Treylon Burks, Trelon Smith, Grant Morgan, Bumper Pool, Hayden Henry, Jalen Catalon and other proven performers.

That said, Pittman and his staff do have some heavy lifting to do with this squad. Sorting out the depth chart at running back and receiver is a must.

Freshman running back A.J. Green has speed to burn and has shown a good work effort so far, but how will he perform in full pads? Fellow freshman Rocket Sanders and Javion Hunt could flip the switch too.

Bryce Stephens is another freshmen with the speed to turn heads. Can he or another freshman find a spot in the Hogs’ pecking order at receiver? What about Oklahoma transfer Jaquaylnn Crawford? Could he make up for the loss of Mike Woods to the Sooners? Someone needs to do so. Might it be a stronger and more physical Trey Knox? Will spring-practice phenom John David White continue to impress?

We won’t know those things until the season starts, but the Hogs’ coaching staff will begin to get the answers for those questions Saturday in the scrimmage.

Likewise, the increased numbers with the defensive line group means every starting spot is up for grabs. Senior transfers Markell Utsey (6-4, 290), Tre Williams (6-5, 260), and John Ridgeway (6-6, 320) weren’t brought in to look good in their uniforms on the sidelines. They came to play, but guys like Isaiah Nichols (6-3, 300), Zach Williams (6-4, 255), Eric Gregory (6-4, 295), and Dorian Gerald (6-3, 265) aren’t going to give up their spots without a fight. With that group ad others, the Hogs have the best chance to be two-deep on the defensive front for the first time in a long time.

Competition is also important in the secondary. Montaric Brown is one of the best cornerbacks returning in the SEC, but who is going to be his running mate on the other side? Hudson Clark showed some nice instincts early last season, particularly with three picks against Ole Miss, but he is facing challenges for his spot in the pecking order.

The Hogs have two solid tight ends in Blake Kern (6-4, 265) and Hudson Henry (6-5, 255), but there’s not a ton of depth behind them. Levi Draper, who moved to tight end from linebacker earlier in practice, injured his shoulder Monday and is taking a medical hardship and will no longer play. Former running back Dominique Johnson (6-1 235) has moved to the spot as a stop-gap measure.

The competition for the starting spots at guard are ongoing with Brady Latham (6-5, 305), Beaux Limmer (6-5, 300) and Luke Jones in the mix, but Ty Clary (6-4, 315) is now working at starting center with Ricky Stromberg (6-4, 310) sideline with a knee injury for a few weeks. The scrimmage is also a big one for backup tackle Ty’Kieast Crawford (6-5, 350), who is very talented if in good enough shape to perform.

The competition at these positions and how they shake out will go a long way in determining what type of team the Razorbacks are going to have this season.

Notice, I haven’t mentioned a thing about quarterback. K.J. Jefferson nailed down the starting job in the spring. As long as he’s healthy, that’s not changing, but as a RPO quarterback, he’s going to take hits, and Jefferson hasn’t had the best record at staying healthy.

Who the back-up quarterback is going to be is a question that must be answered affirmatively in the preseason. Malik Hornsby is super fast but is still developing as a passer. Does that leave the door open for freshman Lucas Coley or redshirt transfer Kade Renfro from Ole Miss? We’ll just have to see.

The kicking game is another area to continue to be sorted out in the scrimmage, although Pittman said that work will only be semi-live in hopes of keeping everyone healthy.

Those are the type of questions Pittman and his staff are seeking to sort out in Saturday’s scrimmage and the one scheduled for Aug. 21.

That may sound like a lot, but that is considerable progress for Pittman’s second-year program. Remember, at this point last year, the corona virus still had us all uncertain if we were going to have a season at all. This year, the Hogs still have questions, but they are fewer with more options than we have seen in recent years with the Razorback program. Progress is happening, and that’s good news for Razorback fans everywhere.