Razorbacks wrapping up preseason Saturday with closed scrimmage

The Arkansas Razorbacks are getting down to the nitty-gritty of preseason camp.

Friday’s scaled-back practice from a very physical Thursday workout will be followed by the final full-scale scrimmage of the preseason Saturday morning. It’s closed to the public and media.

With football, it’s hard to call any one practice more important than another. Coaches make decisions about playing time based on the entirety of a player’s preseason resume. However, Saturday’s scrimmage will put the bow on top of three weeks of work, and it will be the final opportunity for several players to stake their claim on a starting role. For others, it’s their final chance to earn a spot on the varsity or to be initially placed on the scout team.

2021 Arkansas Football Schedule

Sept. 4 – Rice
Sept. 11 – Texas
Sept. 18 – Georgia Southern
Sept. 25 – Texas A&M at Dallas
Oct. 2 – at Georgia
Oct. 9 – at Ole Miss
Oct. 16 – Auburn
Oct. 23 – UAPB at Little Rock
Nov. 6 – Mississippi State
Nov. 13 – at LSU
Nov. 20 – at Alabama
Nov. 26 – Missouri

The scout team plays a vital role in preparing the varsity by mimicking the upcoming opponent. It also gives players a chance to develop against the team’s first and second units. What all scout teamers must know is that an injury or perhaps their development could push them into active duty.

One of the greatest Razorbacks of the SEC era, Matt Jones, labored as basically a scout-team receiver during his freshman season in 2001 for about a month before head coach Houston Nutt and quarterback coach David Lee decided to put his considerable athletic ability to better use as a change-of-pace option operator.

Similarly All-Pro and likely one-day NFL Hall of Fame offensive tackle Jason Peters struggled to get on the field as a defensive lineman before Nutt made the in-season move of the big man to tight end, where he was a glorified extra offensive tackle.

In 1985, Freddie Childress wasn’t on the scout team, but he was a back-up defensive lineman before head coach Ken Hatfield felt he needed more size on the offensive front and moved him to guard, where The Big Chill went on to All-SWC and All-American honors during his four-year career as a starter.

So those initial decisions will be made by Sam Pittman and the rest of the Razorback coaching staff after reviewing the scrimmage. As the squad transitions out of preseason camp and into opponent-focused preparations, those decisions aren’t set in stone, but Saturday’s scrimmage will set the table for how the Hogs start this year.

The Razorbacks have a day off Sunday before classes commence Monday. That afternoon the Razorbacks will begin work toward a dress rehearsal on Aug. 28, also closed to the media and public.

Injuries as well as the light bulb turning on for a player here and there and in some instances failure always alters a team’s lineup during the season. But, the Razorbacks will have their starting point set come Monday.

What seems apparent through zoom interviews with players and coaches this preseason is that Pittman and his staff have a dedicated squad who actually like and respect each other. With 23 seniors and 19 players who have started before returning, it’s also an experienced group.

That bodes well for this season.

While the Hogs might not have a legitimate All-American candidate among its offensive linemen to start the season, you have to like their collective experience and the type of size they have added in just two years under Pittman and his strength and conditioning coach Jamil Walker. Walker was one of Pittman’s first and key hires when he came from Georgia.

It was heartening to hear senior offensive tackle Dalton Wagoner talk about “violence, aggression, and execution” during his time on the interview podium Wednesday. Those are the types of words you like to hear from an offensive lineman.

If Trelon Smith is healthy, he is a dependable runner and fine tone-setter and leader for an intriguing backfield loaded with young talent. Rocket Sanders seems to have nailed down the back-up spot, but don’t count out A.J Green or Javion Hunt from making an impact at some point this season.

Similarly, All-American candidate Treylon Burks leads a receiving group that is seeking to distinguish themselves. De’Vion Warren is proven when healthy, John David White impressed the coaching staff with his grit in spring ball, and Tyson Morris is a dependable veteran, but a young play-maker or two could emerge here in Burks’ shadow.

I like everything I hear about K.J. Jefferson and the maturity and leadership he’s shown at quarterback. He is the starter for the Hogs in no uncertain terms. The coaching staff has made that clear since spring ball, but one of his best assets is running the football, which means his backup has to be ready to play at a moment’s notice.

Is redshirt freshman Malik Hornsby up to filling that role if called upon? That may be my biggest question about this squad going into the season.

Defensively, the Razorbacks are spearheaded by All-SEC candidate Jalen Catalon at safety and All-SEC/All-American linebacker Grant Morgan and his cohorts Bumper Poole and Hayden Henry.

That makes the Razorbacks strong up the middle. Joe Foucha, Simeon Blair, Myles Slusher and Greg Brooks Jr. are safeties that make that core even more solid.

Montaric “Busta” Brown has all-SEC ability at cornerback, and LaDarrius Bishop and Hudson Clark are having a battle for the starting role on the other side.

“I think LaDarrius has got great straight-line and short area quickness,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom said. “You look at his cover skills. He’s long, got really good change of direction and all the things we’re looking for at that position. It’s a battle, and my guess is it will be throughout the season. Hudson Clark continues to make plays and understands how important that position is.”

Arkansas’ defensive line might have been the team’s biggest weakness a season ago. The development of Eric Gregory, Taurean Carter, and Zach Williams along with the addition of seniors transfer John Ridgeway from Illinois State, Markell Utsey and Tre Williams from Missouri and the return of veterans like Dorian Gerald and Isaiah Nichols gives the Razorbacks promise up front.

Odom now has the troops and talent to play either a four-man or three-man front instead of being stuck in the three-man line that yielded very little pressure on the quarterback last season.

Senior safety Foucha has already seen the impact of the Hogs’ improved defensive line.

“I wanted to talk about this the most,” Foucha said. “Our defensive line has been making our job way easier, just getting to the quarterback. We ask them every day, ‘How many seconds do y’all need?’ It went from about three seconds to about .9.”

The feeling around the Hogs’ camp is definitely positive, but it’s hard to truly know how much the squad has improved.

The schedule is brutal, the toughest in the nation, but that’s nothing new for the Razorbacks. It remains to be seen if Arkansas is better equipped to handle it or not?

However, I’m optimistic about this team. At this point, there is no reason not to be.

That assessment may change once I see them perform against Rice at 1 p.m. Sept. 4, but I don’t think it will.

Evidently, tickets are moving a bit slow for that game. Some season ticket holders were given two complimentary tickets to the Rice game gratis in hopes filling out the stadium for that Labor Day-weekend contest.