FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Let’s not kid ourselves, OK. This isn’t going to pretend Alcorn State can hang with Arkansas if certain things go right. Reality is Arkansas could play its entire second unit on offense and defense and still win by a couple touchdowns.
That doesn’t mean Alcorn State lacks good players. It’s just that those the Braves do have are spread over positions, not nearly enough to give the team an advantage anywhere.
In truth, this is a glorified practice for the Razorbacks before Alabama visits, with potential for all of college football to watching, come next weekend.
Let’s take a look, anyway. For the fun of it.
Austin Allen is earning all sorts of love across the land. His 371 yards passing against Texas A&M while being knocked around last Saturday caught the attention of thousands. Four games into the season, he still owns the SEC’s best completion percentage and second-best touchdown-to-interception ratio. He still could use a running game to make his play most efficient, but he’s shown he can handle the big throws when Arkansas needs them.
Lenorris Footman is listed as Alcorn State’s starter, though he came off the bench last week after missing the prior week with an ankle injury. He could split time with Noah Johnson, a dual threat with 4 touchdowns and no interceptions, plus another 4 scores on the ground to go with 183 yards. Footman can do both, too, but Alcorn State is more a running team than a passing one (the Braves lead the SWAC in rushing yards per game).
Rawleigh Williams III finally met his match against Texas A&M and he still ran for 79 yards. Catch is, one carry went for 55 of those. Don’t expect to see him with another 17-or-more carries against Alcorn State. Instead, count on more of freshmen Devwah Whaley and T.J. Hammonds. Whaley was a top-three running back recruit in the country this year and has yet to get uncorked (85 yards on 24 carries) and Hammonds has yet to play. Either way, an explosive game would do wonders, considering the Razorbacks are 12th in the SEC in yards per carry and 11th in the league in total yards rushing.
Alcorn State is the best rushing team in the SWAC. Of course the SWAC is in FCS and the Braves lost to Arkansas-Pine Bluff earlier this year, so take that with a grain of salt. Still, Arron Baker has been a playmaker averaging 7 yards a carry and De’Lance Turner gets the lion’s share of the load. Expect more runs than passes with Turner and Baker getting a bulk of the work, even if that work is cut out for them against an SEC front line.
Drew Morgan and Keon Hatcher are still quite the duo. Morgan is the possession guy, catching 6 balls a game. Hatcher is the big-time guy, leading the team with 281 yards and 3 touchdowns on 14 catches. Jared Cornelius finally had a breakout game against A&M (7 catches for 126 yards and a TD), but fans and coaches will want to see Dominique Reed come out of his funk and the doghouse. Four catches in four games is not what was anticipated for the fastest player in the SEC. Throw in Jeremy Sprinkle as one of the best tight ends in the country, and this one is easy.
Jaborian McKenzie is a legitimate weapon at wide receiver for Alcorn State. At 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, he is in the mold of the slot receiver-type that has given Arkansas trouble all year. Norlando Veals on the opposite side is bigger at 6-3, though he is slight. Think Reed without the top-end speed. The next leading wide receiver on the team has 6 receptions, so a tested Arkansas secondary might not have as many problems this week. It shouldn’t anyway, and if it does, something might be wrong long-term.
Look, Arkansas has issues here. It can’t be sugarcoated anymore. Texas A&M hit Allen 14 times Saturday, and we’ve already been over the inefficiencies in the running game. Frank Ragnow has been a rock at center and right guard and Dan Skipper has had his moments of excellence, but the other three spots have had more glaring issues than stellar moments. Ragnow and Skipper might get pulled early in an expected blowout, but Hjalte Froholdt, Jake Raulerson and the Colton Jackson/Brian Wallace combination could use the extra reps.
Detonio Dade is the team’s most experienced lineman at center and next to him is fellow senior Ladonn Bolden. The best player, however, might be sophomore left tackle Deonte Brooks. They can run-block, but this is a team that’s had issues against Grambling State and UAPB. Arkansas might make mincemeat out of them.
Arkansas was held to fewer than 3 sacks for the first time this season against Texas A&M. That’s both a negative and positive. Negative because they lost, of course. Positive because 3-plus sacks per game is pretty impressive. Expect more than 1 sack against Alcorn State, even if the Braves don’t throw as much. Deatrich Wise Jr. and Jeremiah Ledbetter are still on pace for All-SEC honors and McTelvin Agim is making his case for an All-Freshman selection. We saw last week the unit needs a bit more work on stuffing the run, but perhaps that was more anomaly than anything.
Alcorn State actually has 14 sacks in three games, which is ridiculously good. Throw in the Braves are second-best run-stopping team in the SWAC, and it’s clear they can cause problems. Of course, a lot of the sacks come from linebackers, but still, it requires defensive linemen soaking blockers to free them. Stacey Garner is the best one at end and Arkansas native Kenyon Brantley is solid at defensive tackle. The Braves’ defensive front versus Arkansas offensive line is definitely the closest matchup in the game.
At some point Brooks Ellis and Dre Greenlaw will have to get an extended break. The two are by far the best linebackers on the team and are potential All-SEC selections, too. Continued snaps and playing deep into games, though, and they’re going to be worn out by season’s end. Accordingly, count on more De’Jon Harris and Dwayne Eugene, as linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves admitted this week he’s going to have to force the depth issue. This is the week to do it.
Meanwhile, this is Alcorn State’s best unit. Darien Anderson is a real terror — no, really — at outside linebacker. He has 6.5 of the team’s sacks, and if he’s matched up on Arkansas’ right side, he could cause a few problems. Michael Hurns, another starter, has 1.5 sacks, and Trae Ferrell, the third linebacker in Alcorn State’s 4-2-5, has 2. Arkansas is better than anyone on the Alcorn State schedule, so it remains to be seen how those previous tallies translate, but the groundwork has been laid.
Advantage: Arkansas, but not by as much as you’d think
The first three cornerbacks on the Arkansas roster in the team’s three-cornerback starting unit are all good players. Ryan Pulley doesn’t allow many completions when he’s thrown at, Henre’ Toliver rarely misses a tackle and allows next to nothing in yards-after-catch and Jared Collins never gets thrown at. The weakness is at safety, where Santos Ramirez has played poorly, and it was implied by coach Bret Bielema that Ramirez was one of the players he was unhappy with after Texas A&M. Josh Liddell has been hit-and-miss, too, and De’Andre Coley will miss the first half against Alcorn State after a targeting ejection against the Aggies. There are, right now, no other safeties who play. That’s a problem going forward.
Eric Foster and De’Andre Smith are Alcorn State’s best two cover guys at cornerback and nickel. Daniel Franklin is the big hitter at safety. But giving up more than 320 yards passing per game, this is the weakness on the team. If the front six aren’t getting the quarterback, Allen can pick his spot.
Subpar is still the word for four of the five Razorbacks special teams units (kickoff and punt returns, kickoffs, field goals, punting). The only standout is Toby Baker, who is second in the SEC and top 10 nationally in punting at more than 46 yards per kick. Cole Hedlund is 3 of 4, and the one miss didn’t ultimately matter, even if it would have saved some fingernails. It’s the return game that could use some explosiveness, and kickoffs, they could use some more touchbacks. This isn’t, overall, a strong spot.
Alcorn State has exactly zero yards on punt returns this year and 27 yards per return on kickoffs. Only 2 field goals have been attempted this year and only 1 went in. There isn’t a lot here to glean, but based off of few numbers, it doesn’t seem special teams is anything great.
Advantage: Arkansas, I guess.