FAYETTEVILLE - Arkansas’ pass rush that Coach Sam Pittman sought to improve throughout the Razorbacks spring practices did so during Saturday’s scrimmage but perhaps with too much help from Arkansas’ inexperienced quarterbacks.
Third-year sophomore No. quarterback KJ Jefferson has only started two games in his career, albeit one impressively in the 48-45 loss last season at Missouri.
And redshirt freshman No. 2 Malik Hornsby played just a couple of series on goal-line situations last season behind graduated starter Feleipe Franks and Jefferson.
“We’re holding on to the ball too long,” Pittman said after Saturday’s open scrimmage that he gratefully said was attended by “2 or 3,000.” “We’re holding on to the ball too long which means one of two things. We’re either not getting open or we’re not understanding the defensive coverage. We just missed too many open receivers at the quarterback spots. None of those guys have had much game experience and to be honest with you that’s why I wanted to scrimmage three times this spring.”
Pittman said the Hogs will scrimmage again two Saturdays hence plus the April 17 spring game.
“I thought we did a good job of running the offense,” Pittman said of his quarterbacks. “But obviously, there were some guys open out there that I wish they had thrown and caught the ball a little bit better.”
Sacks can be speculative in scrimmages since there are quick whistles protecting quarterbacks from getting hit but Pittman deemed five inescapable.
“I thought at least early, the sacks we were taking were the quarterback’s fault,” Pittman said. “I thought that we could have gotten rid of the ball. We were out of the pocket on a couple of them that if we just throw the ball past the line of scrimmage we’re in good shape. We had a back get beat on a sack once.”
Pittman said while the pass rush improved, defense against the run needs work.
Conversely, he liked how the first-team offense ran with top returning tailback Trelon Smith and was second-team impressed with Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, the January enrolled freshman 6-2, 210 initially recruited as a receiver but “Day One” moved to running back, Pittman said.
“We need a little faster big back,” Pittman said. “He is a couple of hundred pounds, a little bit more probably. I thought he played well today. He is still struggling in pass protection. Not about the physicality of it, but understanding protections. ”
Smith isn’t very big, but the 5-9, 185 pounder is very fast. He netted a team-leading 710 yards on 134 carries last season after redshirting in 2019 upon transferring from Arizona State.
Pittman smiled when asked about Smith and top receiver Treylon Burks, the junior leading returning receiver from Warren last year catching 51 passes for 820 yards and seven touchdowns.
“Yeah, isn’t it amazing how guys who have played before play pretty good in the spring?” Pittman said. “Burks is a talented, talented kid. Everybody knows that. He went up and got one in the end zone today. And then Smitty, he’s got one gear and it’s full throttle. That’s what makes him a good football player. He’s a physical kid. Not big, but he plays more more physical and heavier than what he is.”
Pittman said both sides of the ball displayed “physicality” Saturday but that neither dominated which he said a head coach appreciates in the spring.
Pittman said sixth-year senior defensive end Dorian Gerald “had a good day today.”
He also cited defensive ends Zach Williams and Mataio Soli individually but collectively said the D-line has work to do.
“ We’ve just got to get better at stopping the run in there,” Pittman said. “And we’ve got to get help with on the edge coming up a little bit faster to turn the ball into our linebackers.”
Third down was a scrimmage emphasis.
“It’s not just the offense,” Pittman, who has repeatedly said the Hogs must be able and willing to run the ball on third and three which they weren’t last fall. “Our defense wasn’t very good on third down last year, either. We’ve made a big, big emphasis on third down. We’re trying to do a little bit different on offense, we’re trying to help ourselves a little bit more with some protections. On defense, we’re trying to be able to play man coverage, which we didn’t try a lot last year. It was drop eight and pray that we get home or pray that we can cover them.”
Special teams also got special attention Saturday.
“ Obviously we have to get better on special teams,” Pittman said. “A lot of that has to do with with your kickers and your returners. We’ve got to find a punt returner. We have to find somebody that they’re scared to kick off to. We’ve got to find elite guys that can return. We’ve got to get kickoff guys we trust that won’t kick it out of bounds. We have to get punters that we trust that will punt it with length, height and in the right area, the right field zone. We’re trying to make them compete.”
Safety Jalen Catalon, defensive tackle Isaiah Nichols, offensive tackle Ty’Kieast Crawford and receiver Jaquayln Crawford.
Asked by Pittman to take the 2021 covid-affected season option of returning as a sixth-year senior, linebacker Hayden Henry fits into 2021 plans though he’s limited this spring.
Pittman said he wants Henry devoting the spring to healing and not risk reinjuring a chronically ailing shoulder.
“One of the things was we’d let him get his shoulder strong,” Pittman said. “He’s really had a good offseason. Our linebackers as a whole are improving big time.”
The Razorbacks, with nine practices left of the 15 allotted by the NCAA, next practice Tuesday.
“We’re going to get after it again,” Pittman said. “We’re going to try to correct the mistakes that we made in this scrimmage.”