Jim Harris: Spring Is in the Air for Red Wolves & Razorbacks


It’s still hard to get a grasp on the fact that tonight (Friday night), Arkansas State’s football program will be playing its annual spring scrimmage for its fifth different head coach in five years.

Of course, everyone now knows the story of how, over the past three years, Jonesboro has become the cradle of big-time coaches, with Hugh Freeze, Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin jumping to new jobs after one successful season with the Red Wolves. A-State thought it had locked Harsin in for at least a couple of seasons more than his two predecessors, but then who saw Chris Peterson finally leaving Boise State, Harsin’s alma mater, for the University of Washington job?

So new coach Blake Anderson, fresh from North Carolina as well as several seasons at the side of offensive genius Larry Fedora, accepted the handcuffs of a major buyout to prove he was willing to stay and, to recruits, that he would be staying in Jonesboro longer than a year.

Tonight, we get to see up close what Anderson’s spread offense will look like. Will it be pass happy or will it continue to feature the strong running game that sparked both Freeze’s and Malzahn’s no-huddle, hurry-up styles, or that helped turned Harsin’s offense around after a rough start last fall?

Will junior quarterback Fredi Knighten out of Pulaski Academy pick up where he left off in the GoDaddy.com Bowl, turning from quick runner to passer in leading the Red Wolves to a last-minute win?

What will the Red Wolves look like defensively after two seasons of guidance under veteran John Thompson, who has moved on to Texas State with head coach Dennis Franchione?

We should get some hints, even though these games never give us the full picture. The 15-game spring practice sessions tend to be geared more toward the 30-40 players who have played reserve roles or stood watching on the sidelines and now try to work their way into the program’s two-deep roster as they head off into the summer and off-season conditioning.

When the Red Wolves and the Arkansas Razorbacks reconvene in early August for fall drills, they should have a pretty good idea of how they’ll line up in their season openers.

At Fayetteville, this weekend will mark the first team scrimmage held without the public viewing. The only eyes given passes on Saturday to see Bret Bielema’s Hogs will ostensibly belong to several high school players that the UA staff hope to entice to join the program.

However, a week from Saturday, Bielema’s Razorbacks will again be on public display with the spring finale, the annual Fayetteville Red-White game (in Arkansas State’s case, the Red Wolves have one more practice remaining for next week after Friday night’s exhibition at Centennial Bank Stadium).

While not rolling out a completely new system for the first time in three springs, Arkansas has had plenty of storylines for the sessions, beginning with a stylistically retooled defense under new coordinator Robb Smith.

Also, in case you may not have noticed, it appears Arkansas’ media office has more control of the storylines showing up in the daily press or the message boards. For example, Thursday night and Friday morning’s focus appeared to be on the rising seniors among last year’s junior college class, with those players standing in for interviews. Defensive back Carroll Washington, linebacker Martrell Spaight and safety/outside linebacker TiQuention Coleman all will need to have ramped up their overall games as the Razorbacks prepare for the 2014 season opener with Auburn and Malzahn’s wide-open offense.

Coleman and Spaight, in particular, were interesting cases last year — and why it’s difficult to take much from the preseason run-up to how they’ll play when the season opens. Coleman had a spring to prepare and looked like a capable hand in the back line of defense, Arkansas’ second-weakest area behind the linebacking corps, but was little used during the regular season as the Hogs struggled. Spaight, a North Little Rock product, figured to help in a position that needed any and all playmakers even though he wasn’t able to participate in spring practice; but, after some significant game minutes against Rutgers, his playing time seemed limited to special teams.

No question, most junior college transfers spend one full year trying to grasp the intricacies of big-time major college football and many don’t blossom until their second (and usually last, except in the case of transfers with three years of playing eligibility) season. That’s why much more is expected from this trio when the 2014 season kicks off.

But Arkansas will also be introducing a couple of new receivers to the public in next week’s game, and fans are eager to see howrazorbacks football spring 2014 Brandon Allen has recovered from the early season shoulder separation that limited him during Southeastern Conference play.

Clint Stoerner, the former Razorback-quarterback-great-turned-radio-show-host, has gone to lengths to remind fans that his sophomore year as the Hogs’ starting quarterback was a miserable 4-7, including a 56-7 midseason loss at Florida (shades of what last year’s Razorbacks experienced at Alabama in midseason) and confusing moments, disheartening losses and an incredible 47 quarterback sacks. But a year of learning and absorbing a pounding helped make Stoerner a top SEC quarterback over his junior and senior seasons, when the Hogs went 17-7. And, like last year’s team, Stoerner’s sophomore squad at least appeared competitive in the final three games against the likes of Tennessee, a ranked Mississippi State squad (a Hog upset win) and a good LSU team in Baton Rouge.

Until last season, that 1997 schedule endured by Stoerner and others was probably the toughest faced by a Razorback team since joining the SEC. It cost Danny Ford his job and brought us the Houston Nutt era. Good thing for Bret Bielema is, last season wasn’t his fifth on the job at Fayetteville, and this year he has one of the few SEC teams that return an experienced quarterback.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,