The celebration that usually centers around the Arkansas Razorback Spring football game was damped this year.
With the weather bearing on Northwest Arkansas, University officials made the call to close the game to the public and move the game indoors. Logistically, this was a nightmare, with the SEC network on site to broadcast the game live, along with local media and radio. Their efforts made the best of their circumstances, and we did get a glimpse of Razorback football, the new look defense, and what we might expect on a depth chart heading into the fall.
The game was actually not a game at all. It was a practice complete with individual drills and team situational play.
Austin Allen is the leader, and there is no doubt he will be the starter this fall. Behind him, most expected Cole Kelley to step into the backup role. He is a physical freak, listed at 6’7” and 258 pounds, he can move and has incredible arm strength. However, he is young, and is still making freshman mistakes. He is very emotional, both with success and failure.
Ty Storey has improved. A year ago, they held the reigns tightly, usually running when he was in the game. He now throws with more accuracy and makes better decisions. Coach Bret Bielema addressed his development and commitment to grow. Currently, he said they are even, but a backup will be defined before the season. Bielema went on to say that competition, even in a backup role, is healthy and brings out the best in the players.
With speed all over the field, the Razorbacks were looking to get many guys touches from different positions. Rawleigh Williams III, the leading returning rusher in the SEC, and Devwah Whaley looked to get the bulk of the carries, while early enrollee and true freshman Maleek Williams shows a lot of promise.
Twenty minutes into the session, the storyline for the day developed from nowhere, as Rawleigh Williams III went down and did not get up. They were not tackling on this day, but making contact and stopping the play. Williams missed significant time after being carted off two years ago with a devastating neck injury. Last year, he was a durable back and eased the fears that the injury had any lasting effect. On this day, contrary to Williams wishes, he was carted off the field and taken to a hospital. Coach Bielema and the team were visibly shaken and took a few minutes to gather themselves before moving on with the day. Word would come later, though they did not issue any official statement, that he suffered from a stinger and the decisions were precautionary based on his previous injury. Bielema would say little more in the press conference as they await updates and analysis.
After the injury, the offense came out and broke a couple of long runs, reenergizing the team and those gathered to watch.
What was expected to be the focal point of the day was the installation of the 3-4 defense and how the personnel would adapt. To be clear, it is not just a scheme change. With Paul Rhoades now the defensive coordinator, there is a new personality for this defense. Bielema referred the defense as a “lunchpail crew” with no real big names out there. Rhoades communicates well and takes ownership of the defensive backfield. He is authoritative but not degrading when correcting mistakes, taking time to be hands on with the player. The deceive front found the quarterback often against the number two offense. McTelvin Agim looked more natural, and the linebackers were quick to the ball, forcing the offense to the sidelines and clogging the running lanes, the goal of a 3-4 scheme.
Another early enrollee is Kyrei Fisher out of Tulsa Union High School. Fisher played with the first team at inside linebacker. He was consistently in the action and received the praise of Coach Bielema in the post game press conference, where he was said to be developing well and is a player that “is not afraid to strike you.” With Dre Greenlaw returning from injury at one of the inside linebacker positions, it looks like Fisher will still be in the rotation in a defense that plans to provide multiple looks and schemes.
Otherwise, it was difficult to draw many conclusions. The University did an outstanding job to make the event possible, but it was extremely crowded and media views were very limited. What was visible was a renewed hope in the potential of this team, specifically the defense. Players encourage and coach each other, and when the day ended on a touchdown pass from a walk on and was caught in traffic on an acrobatic play, the whole team stormed in to celebrate. The largest takeaways are these:
Frank Ragnow may be the face of the team. He can play anywhere you put him, and if able to stay at center, may be the best at his position in the country. The offensive line is making strides, with competition at multiple positions from players with experience.
There is no quarterback controversy. Austin Allen may be the best in the SEC this year, though he is giving up 6 inches and 50 pounds to the guy behind him. He has a mind for the game and his decision making is only getting better.
Wait and see with Rawleigh Williams. Let the young man decide what is best for him. If he is healthy and is ready to play, celebrate. If his previous neck trauma keeps him from suiting up, he will work hard to mentor the other talent already on campus. Arkansas will run the ball effectively.
Paul Rhoades has changed the mentality of the defense. The offensive players respect them more, communication is better, and expectations are higher. The secondary will be strong, the linebackers faster, and Agim may surprise a lot of people with big numbers from the defensive tackle position.
Arkansas will kick off their season on a Thursday night in Little Rock on August 31st against Florida A&M. They will follow that by hosting Big 12 opponent TCU in Fayetteville on September 9th.