FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas Razorbacks quarterback Austin Allen stood before reporters in the bowels of Bank of America Stadium after his team’s epic Belk Bowl meltdown. He tried his best to play the role of resilient, resolute leader, but the dejection was palpable.
“It’ll make us better come next year,” Allen said that night. “I already know that. … What we’re feeling right now will drive us through the offseason workouts, through spring practice, into summer workouts and you’ll see a bunch of angry, hungry players next year.”
Through three spring practices, Allen seems to have stepped up his game. Some of that is just the natural progression that happens between a quarterback’s first and second seasons as the starter, but he also admits that the way 2016 ended is an important motivating factor.
Arkansas led Missouri 24-7 at halftime in the regular-season finale and lost 28-24. Then about a month later in the Belk Bowl, the Razorbacks took a 24-0 lead into halftime against Virginia Tech and lost 35-24.
Allen’s individual performance contributed to both second-half collapses. He threw 5 interceptions in those games — all of them after halftime.
And really, that pair of second-half performances was a microcosm of Allen’s overall season. He was really good in the first half of the Hogs’ 2016 schedule and struggled in the second.
It’s fair to say that a lot of it had to do with his offensive line, which was porous and ineffective for much of 2016 and led to Allen taking a lot of brutal hits. Still, Allen must be better in 2017 — and he knows it.
Asked about the differences in Allen this spring, offensive coordinator Dan Enos said, “Just overall a calmness and attention to detail. … This spring, I’ve already used him a lot as an example to the younger players, our young quarterbacks.
“‘Hey, look at Austin here;’ ‘Look at Austin here;’ ‘Look at the way he’s doing this.’
“I don’t remember doing that a lot last spring. So I see a guy that’s poised and ready to take off and have a great year, not only as a player, but as a leader for this team as well.”
Here are some other items of note after Arkansas’ first week of spring practices:
Backup QB battle rages on
As for who will be Allen’s primary backup, that battle continues — and might not be resolved until fall camp. Sophomore Ty Storey and redshirt freshman Cole Kelley are slugging it out and splitting the second-team reps.
Storey beat out Kelley as Allen’s backup last fall, but it’s also a fact that coaches preferred to redshirt Kelley and had that not been a factor, he might have been the No. 2 guy in 2016.
“Those guys work their tails off,” Allen said. “Both have leadership qualities and both are the biggest competitors you’ll ever meet. They don’t want to lose a rep, don’t want to lose a throw. It’s really exciting.”
The winner of the backup battle becomes Allen’s heir apparent for 2018 — unless, that is, true freshman and early enrollee Daulton Hyatt ends up being better than both of them.
Who will catch the passes?
Arkansas must replace every receiver who made major contributions last season with the exception of senior Jared Cornelius. The Hogs will rely heavily on junior-college transfers Brandon Martin and Jonathan Nance, and during the period of practice Saturday open to the media, it was obvious that receivers coach Michael Smith is holding those guys to a high standard.
Smith was also noticeably hard on sophomore T.J. Hammonds, who came to Arkansas as a running back but is shifting to receiver this spring. Hammonds didn’t redshirt last year — which, in hindsight, seems like an odd decision considering he didn’t play much — but it’s obvious that Razorbacks coaches want to find a way to get him on the field. He is simply too talented to stand on the sideline, but his opportunities at running back probably will be limited as long as Rawleigh Williams III and Devwah Whaley are both still on the roster.
Other receivers to watch this spring include sophomores Deon Stewart and La’Michael Pettway, as well as redshirt freshman Jordan Jones. Another sleeper to watch? Freshman Tyson Morris, a former Fayetteville High player who transferred in this spring from Division II Central Oklahoma. He was getting some action on Saturday.
Gibson’s mistake opens door for Raulerson
Junior offensive lineman Johnny Gibson screwed up. No one will say definitively what led to Gibson’s demotion on the depth chart, but whatever it was means that he won’t earn any first-team reps until fall camp at the earliest.
“Johnny obviously did some good things, but just a trust factor there that I have to get on the same page with him,” said Arkansas coach Bret Bielema. “I gave him a scholarship. I expect him to do everything we’re asking him to do on the field and off the field.”
Indeed, the former walk-on was placed on scholarship last December and he became the team’s starting right guard for Arkansas’ final 5 games of the 2016 season. But at this point, senior Jake Raulerson is occupying that spot again.
Raulerson, you’ll remember, is the guy Gibson replaced in early November. Raulerson transferred to Arkansas from Texas last summer.
Here’s a look at the first-team offensive line after three practices: LT Colton Jackson; LG Hjalte Froholdt; C Frank Ragnow; RG Jake Raulerson; RT Brian Wallace.
Greenlaw working like another coach
Bielema said early in the week that junior linebacker Dre Greenlaw would work this spring as a “mini assistant coach.” At the time, that seemed like it might be a slight exaggeration, but from what we’ve seen in practice, Greenlaw actually is coaching his teammates up.
That’s probably for his benefit as much as anything else — once he’s back from another foot surgery, Greenlaw is going to have a lot of ground to make up in the Razorbacks’ new 3-4 defense. But he is a smart and talented player who is clearly taking advantage of whatever “mental reps” — as coaches are wont to call them — he can get this spring.
Senior Dwayne Eugene is playing the “WILL” linebacker position right now with the first unit, but Greenlaw presumably will take that spot once he’s healthy.
Bielema handling special teams — for now
The Arkansas special teams haven’t been very good throughout the Bielema era. He has indicated that when he’s allowed to hire a 10th assistant coach, it will be a special teams coordinator.
For now, though, Bielema said he is handling the bulk of the special teams duties. New defensive line coach John Scott Jr. is helping some, Bielema said, but he wants Scott to spend most of his time working with — and getting to know — his defensive linemen. Scott served as special teams coordinator during his time on the Georgia Southern staff.