FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The Arkansas defensive backfield sustained another brutal blow with the news Monday that junior Kevin Richardson II will miss the season with what coach Bret Bielema called a “severe” pectoral tear.
“You just take the cards you are dealt,” said defensive coordinator Robb Smith.
Sticking with the poker analogy, it’s sure starting to feel like the dealer might be rigging the game against Arkansas’ secondary.
Richardson’s injury — suffered in the Razorbacks’ season opening win over Louisiana Tech — comes following a two-month period that saw Willie Sykes transfer to Texas Tech and Britto Tutt suffer an ACL tear early in fall camp.
Senior cornerback DJ Dean missed virtually the entire preseason camp with a hamstring injury and did not play in the season opener Saturday.
Dean is once again listed in the two-deep, meaning he’ll be available to play Saturday at TCU. But the injury to the versatile Richardson is particularly damaging to the Hogs defense because while he was listed as a No. 2 corner, he served as the team’s first-team nickelback.
Despite the way Arkansas’ depth chart is organized, the Hogs almost always play with two linebackers and five defensive backs. Richardson started five games last season, as well as the 2016 season opener.
“We will shuffle some guys around,” Smith said.
Bielema said Monday that when the Hogs play their nickel package, junior Henre’ Toliver — a starting cornerback — would move into the nickelback spot, with sophomore Ryan Pulley replacing him on the outside. Toliver has played nickel before.
In situations where the Razorbacks play with three linebackers, Toliver would presumably go back to corner.
This is certainly not the way Arkansas wanted to be handling its secondary rotation with TCU’s high-octane, spread attack looming this weekend. And all of that shuffling comes while the Hogs are also unclear about who will be the team’s starting strong safety this weekend.
Sophomore Santos Ramirez started the first game, but after he was responsible for some of the more egregious busts against Louisiana Tech, an “OR” now separates him with junior De’Andre Coley on the depth chart.
“We’re actually moving Coley into a tie with Santos, just to see who plays better during the course of the week and who’ll get the start on Saturday,” Bielema said.
These are all things Arkansas coaches surely wanted settled weeks ago. Instead, they are entering a tough game against a Big 12 opponent with a whole lot of uncertainty in their defensive backfield.
A defensive backfield, mind you, that allowed 275.2 passing yards per game last season and ranked 116th in the country in pass defense.
But the loss of Richardson hurts for reasons beyond Xs and Os. This is a popular guy in the locker room and — by all accounts — an A-plus teammate.
A former two-way superstar at Jacksonville (Ark.) High School, Richardson began his Razorback career as a walk-on before earning a scholarship just before the 2015 season.
Guys like that are always tough to replace.
“He’s a very calm presence on the sidelines,” Bielema said of Richardson. “He’s very calm, cool, collected.
“It was a tough day yesterday for players and coaches. (We) just talked about he would watch film with the younger guys, teach and prepare them the right way and do some things during the course of the week with those younger guys I think he’ll just naturally do because the way he is with leadership.
“I told him I expect him to get straight As and Bs in the semester and rehab the right way, and he’ll be off and running in the spring.”