For an early season road test, playing Football Championship Subdivision-level Samford in front of 50,000 fans dressed in red and calling the Hogs will be perfect for Bret Bielema’s hardly veteran Arkansas Razorbacks.
In fact, in what likely will be much more to Bielema’s surprise, the trip to Little Rock might even feel more homey for the Hogs than the typical home game in Fayetteville. All that warmth he felt in 60-plus trips around the state to visit fans at Razorback Clubs in the run-up to this season will be melded together in one massive hothouse of War Memorial Stadium on Saturday night.
Alas, Samford is no SMU. I recall Houston Nutt’s second game as Hog coach, after a surprisingly solid win over Louisiana-Lafayette on a Labor Day weekend with a triple-digit heat index, and fans still not certain if the Razorbacks could solve the mystery of beating the downtrodden Mustangs program. On the first play in Little Rock’s sweatbox, Clint Stoerner hit Anthony Lucas on a short hitch route and the speedy receiver went the distance, ignited the packed house and causing the kind of fan frenzy that helped propel the Hogs to an overwhelming win. Yes, Arkansas made a big deal at one time of beating the mediocre, post-death penalty Ponies.
It’s hard to imagine Razorback fans getting too worked up for Samford, though we’re expecting a gutty effort out of the Bulldogs similar to what FCS opponent Tennessee-Chattanooga displayed in 2007 in Little Rock, when everyone thought the Darren McFadden and Felix Jones led Hogs had the Moccasins quite overmatched, yet they had to fight for everything in a 34-15 win.
Of course, that too was a Hog team coached by Houston Nutt, who had changed a lot from the HDN 1.0 version of 1998, when he’d complement his good two running backs by opening things up early with the pass. By 2007, Nutt would run McFadden and Jones into a brick wall over and over if he had to.
We already know Bret Bielema and his play-caller, Jim Chaney, won’t do that with the Razorbacks’ newest “wow” tandem of running backs, sophomore Jonathan Williams and freshmen Alex Collins, the first Hog duo to rush for more than 100 yards each in a game since McFadden and Whitehead … er, Jones. (C’mon, surely you remember the R&B hit “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.”)
“Buddha and the Beast” was the newest nickname we heard last weekend for the Collins (Buddha)-Williams (Beast) pairing. Somewhere, do-everything fullback Kiero Small has to be worked into that group, what with his 53 snaps last week and especially with his 10-yard catch and run for a touchdown that put the Hogs comfortably up by 20 early in the second half. Put 10 players in his way like tenpins and Small becomes a human bowling ball.
In front of them is the most cohesive unit of Hog linemen that I can recall seeing in an opening game in maybe 10 years. Sam Pittman, the offensive line coach who was paid extra to not jump to Alabama just barely a month on the Arkansas job, appears to be worth every penny UA athletic director Jeff Long is paying him. A line that could barely pass block last year, much less open any holes for Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson, suddenly looks like a steam roller. There’s nothing quite like seeing a fast-on-his-feet CENTER snapping and then pulling out to lead the tailback outside on pitch sweeps the way senior Travis Swanson did last week.
No, we won’t confuse Louisiana’s defensive front with any SEC opponent; the Cajuns’ left defensive end and the linebackers cheating to that weaker side all but had bulls-eyes on their chests, as the Hogs targeted them relentlessly.
The run tendency in that direction set up receiver Javontee Herndon for play-action fakes and throws to the opposite side. Herndon, if not channeling Anthony Lucas, confidently seemed to take over the rule of Cobi Hamilton as Brandon Allen’s favorite target downfield. Of course, even more passes were directed at freshmen tight ends Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle, the latter who figures to get double the snaps he saw last week. More wideouts need to step up this week.
Even the Hog defense improved as the Louisiana game progressed. The ends, Trey Flowers and Chris Smith, were everything advertised, particularly after halftime when the passion surged throughout the defense. The interior players were OK. Senior Robert Thomas took on double-teams most of the game lining up over the center, but we’d expect more from senior tackle Byran Jones from simply battling one blocker most every snap. Jones has too much talent not to disrupt an offense or at least require double-teams occasionally too, especially against a Sun Belt Conference team. The good news is, redshirt freshman tackle Darius Philon looks ready to challenge for much more playing time.
On the other hand, the starting senior linebackers, Jarrett Lake and Austin Jones, may be upperclassmen but had no starting experience before last week, and they’re show bigger strides in improvement, starting this Saturday. It’s too soon to write off the position as one of weakness, though the Hogs seem to have a few too many former walk-ons playing key roles there. Arkansas needs sophomore Otha Peters back soon from his broken arm, while transfer newcomer Martrelle Spaight should begin seeing more snaps as he learns the system. Remember, he missed the spring.
Recruiting followers no doubt notice how many cornerbacks and safeties Bielema is recruiting. That won’t help this fall, though, and what’s there is all the Hogs have to go on. Arkansas’ corners gave up 8-10 yards in cushion last week and either didn’t want to show future opponents its press coverage, or the coaches don’t feel good enough about using it.
But tackling was noticeably better throughout the defense, and that’s one big step in improvement over recent seasons. Throw in the two takeaways from last week, and Arkansas is way ahead of the game over last year already.
The Hogs simply need to carry all the positive momentum from winning every phase of the game last week into Saturday and build from there. The cupcake run for Arkansas is short and sweet in 2013. It gets tougher the rest of the way after this road game in Little Rock.