Jim Harris: Best Razorback Players Must Be on the Field


best razorback players

Speaking of the best players available. UPDATE!

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Hog coaching staff must have the best Razorback players on the field

in their best place to succeed against the Aggies

Arkansas Razorback backup quarterback A.J. Derby, thrust into the starter’s role last week against Rutgers because of the freakish shoulder injury to Brandon Allen a week earlier, did nothing to lose last week’s game against the Scarlet Knights. And for the argument from some quarters that he did nothing to win it, I’d say that throwing for one touchdown pass, completing nearly 60 percent of his passes and never turning the ball over was a winning performance.

Arkansas had ways to beat the type of defense Rutgers was playing, and it didn’t all involve Derby having to throw the ball more than 26 times, completing 14 of them. That the Razorbacks couldn’t solve it falls on (1) the coaching staff’s play-calling, and (2) on the sub-par performance of the offensive line.

And still, everything Arkansas did on offense was enough to win the game if not for two horrendous breakdowns in punt coverage in the final 20 minutes. Arkansas surrendered returns of 58 yards (for a touchdown) and 47 yards (to set up the winning score) with lackluster effort and coverage at Rutgers. While blame on the TD return was partly placed on punter Sam Erwin-Hill for kicking rugby style to the middle of the field instead of to his far right, where most of the coverage was placed, Arkansas still had four players in position to corral Janarion Grant if only the defenders had properly broken down and hemmed him in instead allowing themselves to be juked out of position.

Take notice on Saturday night against Texas A&M of how many Aggies defensive starters are on kickoff and punt coverage units against the Razorbacks. They will have at least five. A&M coaches believe it’s been a big key in their 3-1 start and in keeping up with Alabama in a 49-42 defeat.

And, if Arkansas’ coaches haven’t made a few changes on punt coverage for this game, ask yourself how some third-stringer linebackers who can’t crack the regular rotation of the weakest unit on the team can be entrusted to tackle and cover on punts.

In dealing with A&M’s speed on return, not to mention trying to contain Aggies Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel when A&M is on offense, Arkansas must have its best players on the field at all times. That hasn’t been much of the first third of the season, partly by the coaches’ decisions but also because of injuries.

When Arkansas is forced to punt Saturday night — and the Hogs will be — it can’t afford to look like its offensive line and receivers trying to tackle a defender after an interception, which is exactly what both Rutgers punt returns resembled. Arkansas defensively has to have linebackers or a safety, depending on the call, in the vicinity of the tight end. When Otha Peters took over at middle linebacker after halftime last week, the Hogs took that short-pass weapon away from Rutgers.

(Twice, however, the tight end got open downfield for big gains, partly because of backfield coverage. The first time, on the first play of the game, Rutgers ran a trick formation with an unbalanced line left and the tight end serving as an tackle and eligible receiver on the right side, and Arkansas missed the read. The second and last blown coverage came on Rutgers’ 6-play, 98-yard drive to its third score.)

Failing to have their best players on the field hasn’t all been the staff’s fault. A preseason broken arm put Peters on the sideline, and it’s maybe a healing miracle he’s back this early, although still wearing a cast. Peters and Martrell Spaight, a junior college newcomer who missed spring practice while still gaining his eligibility to transfer, are slowly being worked into the lineup and played most of the second half at linebacker in Piscataway, N.J.

The guys who started where Peters and Spaight are playing, to put it nicely, haven’t done the job. One of those tried awfully hard but seemed to spend last Saturday flat on his back, run over by running backs or receivers. Peters, Spaight and senior Jarrett Lake give Arkansas its most athletic linebacker corps.

Strong safety Rohan Gaines also has been limited most of August and the first four games with a knee injury. He only saw seven snaps last week, but the Hogs will need him for 60 minutes Saturday. His backup, Alan Turner, has come on to do a decent job in the past two weeks, and Gaines and Turner both are needed in the Hogs’ “nickel” alignment.

Coaches also have to decide now if veteran upperclassmen who aren’t producing should sit more. This is true in at least one defensive line spot and on the offensive line.

If the future in the offensive front is freshmen behemoths Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper, then they need the majority of snaps starting now. Arkansas has gone long enough with more experience giving disappointing results, particularly last week when one-on-one blocks were missed up front and the Hogs managed just 101 rushing yards.

Defensively, maybe it’s time to see more snaps from redshirt freshman tackle Darius Philon, who had two sacks last week.

The problem is that none of these guys can play 70-80 snaps, which is why the Hogs want their running game to go and shorten the contest as they eat clock and control the football. Arkansas needs depth, but Arkansas in recent years as not been able to go very deep, especially on defense. Cornerback Tevin Mitchell had an outstanding three quarters last week against Rutgers; could having to play almost every snap have sapped him in the fourth quarter? Of course.

If newcomers Carroll Washington and D.J. Dean are even close to ready, they need to play significant snaps now. A&M starts an 8-game-in-10-week grind of SEC competition.

Now, we get back to Derby. Is he the best quarterback available with Brandon Allen sidelined? We’d have to say yes. If true freshmen Austin Allen were actually ready for all the reads and everything else the college game calls for, we’re sure the staff would call on him. They haven’t.

But the offensive staff needs to give Derby everything he’s capable of doing to move the football Saturday night. If he truly is a better runner than Brandon Allen, as head coach Bret Bielema said two weeks ago, then let him run. Keep the A&M defense honest. Run the bootlegs and continue using misdirection that will bother the overplaying Aggie defense. If there is a speed threat with hands somewhere on the roster, get that player (D’Arthur Cowan, back from injury, perhaps?) significant snaps as well. Stretch the defense sideline to sideline and vertically and let the great running backs show their stuff this week.

Put the best players on the field and in their best place to succeed. Otherwise, Arkansas won’t stay on the field with A&M.

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