Arkansas defensive linemen Jonathan Marshall and McTelvin Agim / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
There may not be a more important day for the Arkansas Razorbacks in preseason camp than Saturday’s closed scrimmage.
While competition for roles on the team will continue throughout the rest of the season, first impressions often are lasting impressions. Though the Hogs will have gone through seven practices prior to the scrimmage, Saturday is when it all comes together for the first time.
The bullets will be as live as they will be before the Razorbacks open their season against Portland State at 3 p.m. on Aug. 31, and second-year head coach Chad Morris and his staff will make evaluations and determinations from the footage of the scrimmage that will bear weight for the rest of the season.
The scrimmage won’t be the final word on anything, but it will be like a midterm test of sorts as the Razorbacks make their way through preseason camp. The scrimmage will set the tone for the rest of preseason. It will chart the course on what the next step is for the football team, and how quickly it can press forward.
Morris and his staff are counting on lots of young players on both sides of the football, and to get them ready for the season, determinations will have to be made over the next two weeks on which ones can help immediately and which ones are designated for the scout team.
Those evaluations will be made with the upperclassmen, too. If a younger player moves up the pecking order, it could move an older player to the side. Coaches have to project at times.
Is it better for the team to continue working with an upperclassman who hasn’t progressed to a certain level yet, or is more fruitful to work with a younger player that has a higher ceiling. And is it possible to get that younger player to that point in time where he will be an asset this season or will it be better for him to redshirt.
In some situations, youth has to be served, and youth has to serve. That’s what the Hogs are facing.
Freshmen are going to have to play for the Razorbacks on the defensive front, in the secondary, and at receiver just to have enough bodies to get through a game. There is no choice. Arkansas lacks depth behind the projected starters other than the freshmen.
The coaches have to pick which youngsters are the most ready to contribute, the ones least likely to make a critical mistake, and which ones have the winning attitude that has been missing on the field for at least two seasons.
Arkansas freshman wide receiver Trey Knox / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com
Freshmen defensive backs Jalen Catalon (5-10, 196) and Greg Brooks (5-11, 179) have earned praise from players and coaches through the first week of practice as has defensive end Mataio Soli (6-4, 239). Freshman wide receivers Trey Knox (6-5, 205) and Treylon Burkes (6-3, 223) appear to have the size and speed to get their noses wet early in the season, too, as does tight end Hudson Henry (6-5, 238).
There are other freshman who are going to earn playing time or be pressed into service before their time, too. We just have to see which ones emerge.
No doubt there are key battles being waged on the offensive front. The loss of tackle Noah Gatlin for the season to a knee injury was a blow. He either would have started or been a key backup.
Senior Austin Capps (6-4, 304) and sophomore Shane Clenin (6-6, 302) are working a the first team guards, and senior Colton Jackson (6-5, 298) and sophomore Dalton Wagoner (6-9, 308) are working at first team tackles with junior Ty Clary (6-4, 285) at center, but after last season, none of them should be too comfortable in their spot. Junior college transfer Myron Cunningham (6-6, 290) has practiced at guard and tackle, and could unseat a projected starter if anyone gets lax.
Of course, the most compelling battle is the Ben and Nick Show.
Graduate transfer Ben Hicks (6-1, 217) took over the top spot in QB during the spring with his experience at SMU instantly vaulting him over all the returning quarterbacks. However, the arrival of junior Nick Starkel (6-4, 213) this summer as a graduate transfer from Texas A&M signaled there would be a battle for the starting spot.
Starkel has the bigger frame, the bigger arm and SEC starting experience, but Hicks has run Morris’ offenses for three seasons at SMU and showed fine leadership skills in the spring. Saturday should be telling. A big arm isn’t all there is to playing quarterback, but it’s not a bad attribute either.
Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock may have enough information to make a decision after the scrimmage, or they may need more time, or they might not be ready to reveal the starter to the public.
My hope is after they make the decision the winner of the job takes the team by the reins and leads them back into competitive position within the SEC.
Last season Arkansas didn’t have a fighting chance with the quarterbacks on hand, hopefully that situation has been elevated. A capable quarterback allows for a team to progress and improve during the season. Hopefully Starkel or Hicks will be better than just capable, but we’ll will have to see.
What has pleased me most from watching various interviews with the Razorbacks’ defensive player this preseason is how much more confident they seem after a season in defensive coordinator John Chavis’ system. Last year that confidence just wasn’t there. They seem to understand their roles better after a year of work in his system, which should allow them to play faster and more competently than a year ago.
That assumption will be put to the test in Saturday’s scrimmage. With it being closed, we’ll only know what the coaches and players relate to us in interview sessions, but I anticipate hearing what’s said and the type of movement we will see in the depth chart when the players line up again on Monday.