FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The raw numbers can’t be easy to stomach for Arkansas Razorbacks fans: 79 rushes, 456 yards. Those are — unofficially — the rushing totals from the team’s first 2017 spring scrimmage.
Rawleigh Williams III and Devwah Whaley combined for 275 yards against a first-team defense trotting out its fancy new 3-4 scheme, being led by a new coordinator and featuring several new faces.
After the Razorbacks’ disastrous run defense in 2016 — the Hogs ranked 94th in the country in rushing yardage allowed and last in rushing touchdowns allowed — it would be understandable if the scrimmage Saturday caused some panic among the Arkansas faithful. But it isn’t quite time for that. Not yet anyway.
Arkansas is only six practices into the spring. The entire defense is far from being installed and was pretty basic Saturday.
Saturday was also the first time all spring that Arkansas defenders have tackled to the ground — and they were still limited. Arkansas coach Bret Bielema instructed defensive players to avoid hitting low, which likely contributed to some of the broken tackles.
“You saw one guy went low early and I got all over him,” Bielema said after the scrimmage. “I just don’t want to put our guys at risk, so that really puts our defensive guys at a disadvantage.”
It is also worth pointing out that Williams led the SEC in rushing yardage during the regular season last year and Whaley is one of the most talented players on the team.
Those facts don’t entirely excuse the defense. But even the busted assignments can be largely chalked up to inexperience; lots of defensive front-seven guys are playing new positions and still learning their responsibilities in the new system.
Bottom line: Let’s get to the spring game and see how the run defense has progressed before breaking any emergency glass.
Here are a few other items of note from the last week, Arkansas’ second of the spring session:
Williams gets big workload
The first question I asked Bielema after the scrimmage Saturday was about Williams, who carried the ball 19 times for 189 yards. I wondered about the decision to give him that much work in a scrimmage considering he has little to prove.
“Rawleigh … and Devwah have a nice competition going,” Bielema said. “And the more that we could get Rawleigh to get some cuts that we wanted (him) to improve upon in the fall. I think there are some specific plays that Dan (Enos) wanted to run with him in there and he did a good job.”
Reading between the lines a bit: It doesn’t sound like a guarantee that Williams will be the Razorbacks’s No. 1 running back in 2017. That is as much about Whaley’s immense talent as anything, but interesting nonetheless.
If Williams and Whaley could be a 1-2 punch like Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams were a couple years ago, that would be huge for the Hogs. And at that point, it doesn’t really matter who starts any given game.
I would expect Williams and Whaley to both get a whole lot of touches this fall.
Ragnow sits out
Senior center Frank Ragnow didn’t participate in the scrimmage Saturday. Junior Zach Rogers worked as the first-team center in Ragnow’s place.
“He was not happy,” Bielema said of Ragnow. “I really struggled with that one. … Guys that are at the level where I don’t know how much better they’re going to get … It’s kind of the risk/reward. I mean, he could have played every rep today and gotten a little bit better, but the risk of what could be the byproduct of something negative to me isn’t worth it.”
Ragnow seriously considered skipping his senior season and entering the 2017 NFL Draft before ultimately deciding to come back. He will enter 2017 as a serious All-America and Rimington Trophy candidate.
The rest of the first-team offensive line has remained consistent throughout the spring, with Colton Jackson at left tackle, Hjalte Froholdt at left guard, Jake Raulerson at right guard and Brian Wallace at right tackle.
Raulerson was elevated back into the first unit because of Johnny Gibson’s off-field issue that got him demoted.
Tight end spot up for grabs
The tight end position holds high importance in the Arkansas offense, so the question of who will replace Jeremy Sprinkle is a big one.
The Razorbacks are still waiting for top-rated junior-college tight end Jeremy Patton, who should arrive this summer. Sophomore Austin Cantrell played well last season as the secondary tight end, but he is seen as more of a blocker than a pass catcher.
“Austin is probably as good of a blocking tight end as I’ve had here and really before I came here,” Bielema said. “Austin Cantrell is a very special player.”
Guys like Jack Kraus, Will Gragg and Cheyenne O’Grady are also options. O’Grady, a former Fayetteville High standout, stepped in during the Belk Bowl — when Sprinkle was suspended — and caught 2 passes, including a 28-yard touchdown.
“I get asked this all the time, whether it’s my dad or my wife or you guys, you know, how are the tight ends doing?” tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. said. “Well, they’re all getting better. They’re all getting better. They all had a baseline starting the spring and they’ve all grown in that area. But the next 10 days are going to be really critical for how that’s going to come out in the wash.”
Speaking of pass-catchers…
Arkansas wide receivers coach Michael Smith said he’s hoping to identify six guys he can rotate in and out next season. The Razorbacks lost four senior wideouts from last year’s team.
The top-3 guys at the moment are senior Jared Cornelius and sophomores La’Michael Pettway and Deon Stewart. Junior-college transfers Brandon Martin and Jonathan Nance are also competing for starting roles.
Pettway came in with an impressive offer list but has struggled to make an impact after two seasons on campus. Smith described a recent conversation with Pettway that upset him.
“We sat down and he openly admitted to me that he was just waiting his turn,” Smith said. “I was kinda ticked off at him because I think it’s foolish of a man to sit back in the background and wait for something to happen instead of going out and attacking and trying to get it. With the departure of all the guys we have leaving, he’s stepped up and made some plays for us.”
The Razorbacks’ leading receiver in the Saturday scrimmage was redshirt freshman Jordan Jones, who caught 4 passes for 99 yards, including a 63-yard touchdown catch-and-run.
Martin dropped a pass in the end zone Saturday. Another guy who struggled with drops was converted running back and sophomore T.J. Hammonds. He is super-talented, and Arkansas coaches are obviously eager to find him a role in 2017.