LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Alcorn State may or may not be as bad as Texas State. Arkansas smoked the Bobcats two weeks ago and we learned very little. It did the same to the Braves on Saturday and, well, actually, we did learn a little.
Maybe it was because Alcorn State pushed Arkansas a little harder. Maybe it was because more new faces were in the game earlier. Maybe because it was Little Rock. Who knows. Reason No. 2, though, is legitimate. That’s something we need to see beyond Saturday.
Arkansas must — must — continue to build its depth at certain positions. Mostly that comes in the form of young players; sometimes it’s with older players who are only now getting their opportunity. Both showed out Saturday as the sort who can, by either necessity or luxury, assist in the final seven games of the regular season.
Yeah. Seven games. The 2016 season is nearly half over. Arkansas holds a solid 4-1 record, which is better than lots anticipated. The meat-grinder portion of the schedule is yet to come, though. It begins next Saturday with No. 1 Alabama at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. And with that game comes more necessity than luxury. Some new faces will have to have an effect if Arkansas wants to pull the upset against the Crimson Tide.
A few of those guys showed they could be capable Saturday.
Take Devwah Whaley. The No. 3 running back recruit in the country in the Class of 2016, Whaley has taken a while to get his game working. He had 85 yards on 24 carries in four games entering War Memorial Stadium, then broke through with a 9-carry, 135-yard, 1-touchdown game Saturday.
Keep in the mind the opponent, yes. A given. Also consider he hadn’t done that against even Texas State previously, either. Reminder, too, it took sophomore Rawleigh Williams III (who had 126 yards rushing Saturday) five games into his career to get that 100-yard game, and entering this week, he was third in the SEC in rushing. Coach Bret Bielema doesn’t want Williams, probably, up beyond the 300-carry mark this season, and so to bring him down to a more manageable total, it’s Whaley who will pick up the slack.
De’Jon Harris, another freshman, had his moments Saturday, too. He was in the game already by the second defensive series. Starting linebackers Dre Greenlaw and Brooks Ellis hadn’t come out of the game more than three times — that’s three total snaps — before the fourth quarter in every game this season, including Texas State.
Harris is seen as the heir apparent to Ellis, the team’s senior middle linebacker. He had 7 tackles and a 1/2 tackle-for-loss against Alcorn State, tied for the team lead in the former.
No one expects him to immediately take the gig and run with it and have Arkansas move itself back to a 4-3 defense, but he is establishing himself as the team’s third linebacker, or first one off the bench, in its 4-2-5. The role is important, and only will become moreso, as Greenlaw and Ellis proved to be worn down by season’s end last year with poor options at behind them.
Cody Hollister has the potential to come alive now, finally, too.
A senior wide receiver, Hollister missed most of last season with a broken foot and had 17 career catches coming into the season. But with Dominique Reed in the coaches’ doghouse — and Reed did nothing to extricate himself from that predicament Saturday — reps are there for Hollister.
Hollister will be the fourth wide receiver at best at this point. Doesn’t matter. Arkansas goes with three wide receivers semi-regularly, and offensive coordinator Dan Enos and wide receivers coach Michael Smith hoped to rotate at least five guys through this season. Hollister could have about 20 grabs this year despite not getting one Saturday. Instead he had 2 carries for 48 yards, one of which went for a score. His ability to turn into the playmaking-type Reed was last year (even minus the top-end speed) could change games, even if only a couple plays per.
Throw in first-career touchdowns for freshman running back T.J. Hammonds and redshirt freshman wide receiver La’Michael Pettway on Saturday and Arkansas suddenly looks more like a team with more options than just its first-stringers.
Looks like. Let’s see what the next three weeks bring — vs. Alabama, vs. Ole Miss, at Auburn — before sealing that one in stone.