Junior safety and co-captain Santos Ramirez / ArkansasRazorbacks.com
While this season will be Paul Rhoades first as the Arkansas Razorbacks defensive coordinator, it will be his second as the Hogs’ secondary coach.
That should give the Razorbacks’ veteran secondary the opportunity to be improved over last season when Arkansas’ safeties struggled to provide run support and tackled poorly at various junctures throughout the season.
The Razorbacks have three safeties with extensive playing experience in team captain Santos Ramirez, Josh Lidell, and De’Andre Coley, but they have all had their ups and downs as Razorbacks through the years.
Ramirez, a 6-2, 198-pound junior from Shreveport, La. has nailed down the starting strong safety spot. Coaches have praised him for his leadership since spring practice, and it speaks highly of his maturity that they supported him being elected a team captain as a junior. Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema said he prefers the team captains to be seniors, but that Ramirez is a justified exception because of his work and leader ship since January.
Reid Miller, a 5-9, 201-pound junior from Hollidaysburg, Pa., backs Ramirez on the strong side, but it is likely either Lidell or Coley or both could rotate over to the strong side when Ramirez is winded.
Lidell, a 6-1, 211-pound senior from Pine Bluff and Coley, 6-1, 211-pound senior from Miami, Fla., have waged a battle for the starting free safety spot. Coley opened preseason drills as the starter, but Bielema announced last week that Lidell pulled ahead over the last two weeks with the 14 best practices of his career.
The battle for the starting role has been intense, but no matter how the depth chart shakes out, both will see their share of playing time.
Kevin Richardson, who was also voted a team captain, is the Hogs’ nickel back. The 5-11, 180-pound senior from Jacksonville is also the most versatile member of Arkansas’ secondary. He can play all five spots in a pinch. Lidell would likely shift to the nickel spot if Richardson needed a rest or was filling another role.
Considering the experience Richardson, Ramirez, Lidell, Coley, and Miller bring, safety might be the deepest position on the Razorbacks’ squad.
While safety is the deepest spot in Arkansas’ secondary, left cornerback Ryan Pulley proved to be the Razorbacks’ best defensive back last fall with a breakout year.
Pulley, a 5-11, 196-pound junior from Fort Myers, Fla., led Arkansas with 13 pass breakups, while collecting 47 tackles. His 13 pass breakups ranked second in the SEC and tied for 12th in the FBS.
Earlier in the week, Pulley was one of four Razorbacks named to the first Pre-season All-SEC Team that was named by the league coaches. Pulley joined quarterback Austin Allen and guard Hjalte Froholdt on the third team, while center Frank Ragnow was named to the second team.
Britto Tutt, a 6-1, 179-pound sophomore from Ventura, Calif., and Kamren Curl, a 6-1, 193-pound freshman from Muskogee, Okla., are working behind Pulley on the left side.
Henre Toliver, a 6-1, 185-pound senior from Marreo, La., is another veteran starter for the Hogs at right cornerback. He should expect to be busy this year if teams avoid throwing to Pulley’s side. That should give him and backups Richardson and Chevin Calloway, a 5-10, 188-pound freshman from Dallas, opportunities to shine.
One change Rhoades has instituted this season is training the cornerbacks to play both the boundary and field positions. This means Pulley will be lined up on the left side of the field and Toliver on the right no matter which hash mark the ball is placed on.
Last year, Arkansas’ corners played either the boundary (short side of the field) or the field (wide side of the field).
Rhoades said playing a side of the field will allow the players to get into position more quickly instead of flip flopping based on where the ball is marked.
Junior Cole Hedlund will open the season as the Hogs’ placekicker. Bielema said earlier this week that Hedlund has hit 97 percent of his field attempts in practice from 40 yards and in. Last year Hedlund hit all 25 of his PATs and was 5 of 7 on field goal attempts. Freshman Blake Mazza will back Hedlund.
Robert Decker will be the snapper and Reid Miller his holder. Sophomore Connor Limpert has earned the kick-off duties.
Sophomore Blake Johnson will handle the punting duties this season. He punted twice as a freshman and had a 47-yard average with both being fair caught. Redshirt freshman quarterback Cole Kelly will be his backup.
Receivers Deon Stewart, Jordan Jones, Jonathan Nance, and De’Vion Warren have been working as the top four kick returners. With senior receiver Jared Cornelius missing all of preseason camp and still not fully cleared to practice and play because of a back injury, Toliver will return punts for the foreseeable future.
Getting a Head Start
The Razorbacks open their season at 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 31, but the Hogs opponent the Florida A&M Rattlers will already have a game under their belt when they arrive at War Memorial Stadium.
The Rattlers, coached by Earl Holmes and based in Tallahassee, Fla., play host to Texas Southern at 11 a.m. CST Saturday in a game that will be televised by ESPNU.
Bielema said the Razorbacks would lift weights Saturday and then have brunch together before breaking into their position groups to watch the game.
The Rattlers will have a quick turn around of just five days before serving as the Hogs’ opening season opponent.
Playing the Rattlers on Thursday will also give the Razorback extra time to prepare and scout the TCU, which Arkansas hosts at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 9 at Reynolds Razorback Stadium for CBS’ first telecast of the season.
TCU opens their season at 7 p.m. Sept. 2 against Jackson State in a game that will be televised by Fox Sports.