Arkansas football is set to begin next week its first spring workouts under coach Chad Morris. The Razorbacks are scheduled to practice 14 times between March 1 and April 9, though another date could be added, with the NCAA allowing up to 15 practices. The spring game will be played April 7 at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
While there are many issues to address with the offense and defense this spring, special teams won’t go unnoticed. A heavy focus on all areas of the special teams is a point of emphasis for Morris.
Quality control assistant Tanner Burns has been retained from the previous staff and will be primary special teams coach. Under his guidance, the Hogs special teams improved in several ways last season. But he won’t be doing it alone in 2018 as Morris plans to give every assistant on staff a role in helping with special teams.
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Here are three things Arkansas should look to accomplish within its special teams during spring practices:
Crank up kicking competition
Arkansas punter Blake Johnson essentially went unchallenged in being named the starter last season, despite his inconsistencies. That will not be the case going forward. Though the junior is back, he’s going to have plenty of competition from some preferred walk-ons.
The Razorbacks added Chad Stephens from Dodge City (Kan.) Community College to the roster last month. He turned down scholarship offers from smaller programs for a preferred walk-on spot at Arkansas. He should be Johnson’s primary competition this spring. Redshirt freshman Blake Mazza could also be an option at punter.
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At kicker, junior Connor Limpert has a much stronger chance of retaining his job than Johnson. But if Limpert isn’t sharp, the Hogs will have options. Mazza can provide some competition this spring. In the fall, preferred walk-ons Reid Bauer and Matthew Phillips will be added to the roster. Bauer also had walk-on interest from Michigan, Missouri and Purdue. Phillips chose Arkansas over scholarship opportunities at Middle Tennessee State and Western Kentucky.
Arkansas kickoff duties seemingly are up for grabs. Any of the previously mentioned players could take those duties from Limpert. He had a touchback percentage of just .318 last season — worst in the SEC among players with at least 50 kickoffs. He was also tied for worst nationally with 6 kickoffs out of bounds.
All this competition is a recipe for making special teams stronger. It’ll begin this spring and will be one of the key storylines to watch during that time.
Leave returns to De’Vion Warren
This may be decided by the coaches this spring, but the primary kick return duties should be a foregone conclusion. Sophomore wide receiver De’Vion Warren has to be that player. In fact, the Hogs would be wise to do whatever they can to make sure he fields every kickoff.
Warren’s 26.3 yards per kickoff return last season led the SEC. His 100-yard kickoff return touchdown against Auburn shows why he’s such a great return specialist with maybe the best combination of quickness, vision and speed on the team.
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If he’s capable of comfortably fielding punts, the Hogs should use him for those duties as well. That’s an experiment that can and should be tested this spring.
Keep up the coverage
Arkansas special teams were mostly outstanding in coverage last season. Opponents averaged just 19.3 yards per kickoff return (third in SEC) and 3.6 yards per punt return (first in SEC). Other than a kickoff return touchdown that arguably cost the Hogs a win against Texas A&M, they were exceptional in coverage.
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The kickoff coverage was particularly impressive considering Arkansas ranked last in the SEC with 21 touchbacks. The Hogs are getting back nearly all the players who thrived on that coverage unit — particularly Derrick Munson, Giovanni LaFrance and Hayden Henry, all of whom were freshman linebackers last season. There shouldn’t be any reason to drastically alter the coverage units this spring or next fall.