The one thing I learned years ago from watching spring scrimmages that I always have to remind myself is that it’s hard for a spectator to really learn much from a spring scrimmage.
A scrimmage isn’t a game. It’s a practice, and like any practice, it’s planned out ahead of time by the coaching staff to achieve certain goals and to evaluate certain aspects of the team.
In his post-practice, news conference, Arkansas coach Bret Bielema mentioned that the running backs were asked not to cut on their carries, but to run to the point of attack as the play was designed even if they saw daylight elsewhere. Bielema didn’t explain why, but a back would never be limited in that way during a ballgame.
Since the Hogs have an inexperienced offensive line, I’m guessing it was to better evaluate the blocking at the point of attack. It also could have been to assess how the defensive linemen and linebackers make their run fits. It likely was for both, but then again maybe not. The point is that we in the stands really don’t know the specifics of what Arkansas’ staff was looking for out of the scrimmage other than what Bielema told us following the practice.
So making a grand assessment about how potent the Razorbacks’ offense will be this fall or how stingy the defense might be after one practice may be fun, but it’s also futile.
The great thing is that the Razorbacks have eight more practices, including the spring scrimmage, to continuing working out the kinks and then about a month of practices in August before they open the season against Louisiana Tech on Sept. 3.
They also have the summer to improve their strength, flexibility, agility and overall conditioning with the hopes of them all being more capable players in August than they are today. I have no doubt the Razorbacks will be a more polished product by Sept. 3.
Like any football fan, I love to look at stats. It’s a great way to assess performance because it’s quantifiable. However stats from a scrimmage are very deceptive. We don’t know how different the rushing totals might have been if the backs would have been allowed to cut. We don’t know what limitations were put on the defense, or if there were other limitations on the offense. In a game, plays would have been called based on the circumstances rather than the scrimmage script.
The Razorbacks defense was credited with seven sacks in the scrimmage, which sounds like a good number, but they did not have to actually tackle the quarterback to get that credit because the quarterbacks are off limits from being tackled. How many times have we seen a lineman closing in for a sack but the quarterback gives him the slip? Probably more times than we actually see sacks. Conversely, the no-hitting-the-QB imperative allowed the quarterbacks to remain in the pocket to throw passes when in a game-situation they would have been flushed out or truly sacked.
Some of those throws were completed which looks good statistically for the offense, but it unfairly hangs the defense out to dry. So, again the stats are cooked to a certain degree both ways.
All of that is said to keep both my optimism and pessimism about what I saw last Saturday in check.
For me, the Razorbacks passed the eye test going into Bielema’s fourth year at the head of the program. On the field, they looked like an SEC football team. They looked athletic and capable pretty much across the board. That’s not always been the case with the Razorbacks. There are a few players who might not be optimal SEC size like Josh Harris at linebacker and Karl Roesler at defensive end, but they make plays.
What I liked most was the competition; the players were really getting after it. It was one practice, but there seems to be a less of a drop off between the starters, back-ups and third string in intensity and comprehension of the offense and defense. The practice moved along fairly smoothly without the coaches having to stop play an inordinate amount for on-the-spot correction.
The one exception to that was two-thirds of the way through practice when starters Austin Allen and Frank Ragnow botched the quarterback-center exchange several times. Bielema halted the practice to let them get their connection back before moving forward.
Early on the first-team defense smothered their offensive counterparts. When Bielema pulled seniors Brooks Ellis and Deatrich Wise from their starting linebacker and defensive end spots, the offense had more success. Neither of them competed in the red zone work in the latter portion of practice when the offense held sway. It was great to see the offense work so effectively, but conversely it was a flashback to last season when it seemed Arkansas’ defense couldn’t get off the field.
It was great to see receivers Cody Hollister and Keon Hatcher back in the saddle and making plays. Both were hurt early last season when Arkansas’ offense was struggling to score. Hollister’s height is going to help the Razorbacks this season, and Hatcher looked like his old self. Hollister led all receivers with 5 catches for 93 yards and touchdown. Hatcher, in limited work, made three catches for 57 yards and a touchdown. With Drew Morgan, who is recovering from shoulder surgery, and Dominique Reed also in the mix this fall, the Hogs have a fine group of receivers if they all can remain healthy.
The Razorbacks have the makings of another strong group at tight end. Jeremy Sprinkle could grow into an all-SEC type player, and the trio of red-shirt freshmen Will Gragg, Cheyenne O’Grady and Austin Cantrell all appear capable of helping this season. Bielema said the group is doing fine catching the ball and running routes, but must become more physical and responsible blocking on the backside and in the running game in general.
Damon “Duwop’ Mitchell may have finally found his Razorback home at running back after working at quarterback and receiver. He has good speed and is elusive. He’s not as authoritative of a runner as we’ve come to expect under Bielema, but he has a burst. Kody Walker had another bruising scrimmage. His strength and be-your-own-blocker style should be a help to the Hogs’ inexperienced offensive line.
As for the offensive line, there is building material there, but it is a work in progress. The defense really did dominate them early in the scrimmage, and the quarterbacks faced outside pressure all day. Bielema did not express concern about the development of the line, but he said players like guard Hjalte Froholdt, tackle Colton Jackson, and guard/center Zach Rogers among others need as many repetitions as possible over the next two weeks of practice.
The offensive line appears to be the least game-ready unit on the offense and possibly the entire team. But that’s to be expected when a unit it replacing three starters and is working under the direction of a new position coach, Kurt Anderson. How quickly the offensive line meshes is a huge key to the Razorbacks’ success next season.
The defensive line looked improved and fairly deep even with senior Taiwan Johnson out with an injury and Tevin Beanum away dealing with a personal issue. McTelvin “Sosa” Agim, a freshman who joined the team after graduating high school in December, looks every bit the part of an SEC defensive lineman. He was at the center of a pretty good scuffle with Froholdt and senior offensive tackle Dan Skipper. The coaching staff will help him channel that aggression into a more productive form.
Ellis and returning sophomore starter Dre Greenlaw were thumping away at linebacker and appear to have more help with Kendrick Jackson and Randy Ramsey among others coming along, but it’s really hard to tell where the defensive line and linebackers are because of Arkansas’ inexperience on the offensive line.
The secondary appears more aggressive under the tutelage of former Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoades, but like with the line and linebackers, you never really know how they stack up until they line up against another opponent.
As for the quarterbacks, Allen is clearly the most advanced of the group as Bielema and offensive coordinator Dan Enos have said. It would take an injury or some off-the-field mishap for him to be supplanted.
That said Arkansas’ quarterback position is as well stocked with capable performers as it has been since Tyler Wilson was Ryan Mallett’s backup in 2010. Rafe Peavey was ahead of Ty Storey in the pecking order going into the scrimmage, but Storey had the better practice. The competition between the two for the second-team role should only make both better. I am not a coach, but from what I saw, I wouldn’t be afraid to see either enter a game if Allen were injured.