Jim Harris: What To Watch For in Razorback Red-White Game

As strange as it may seem to younger Razorback fans when the stadium debate discussion rears its annual ugly head, Arkansas didn’t just play a majority of its regular season games in Little Rock over its home campus for more than 50 years. The Hogs also brought the team caravan to War Memorial Stadium for several decades to wrapup spring practice with the second of two Red-White games.

In Fayetteville, a usually sleepy atmosphere surrounded an afternoon scrimmage game that drew 5,000-10,000 fans at the most, and the big attraction in my day as a UA student was trying to spot coeds sunning in various spots throughout Razorback Stadium. The crowd was usually double and sometimes triple the next weekend in Little Rock. Quarterback great Joe Ferguson and the Razorbacks drew 34,000 fans to War Memorial Stadium for the 1972 Red-White Game under the lights. An approaching tornado sent media and fans fleeing in 1978.

In Fayetteville, as it is now, the game was free. To cover the expense of playing at the stadium in Little Rock, it typically cost fans $1 and the old IGA store chain made up the difference. Yes, don’t tell current UA athletic director Jeff Long, but 34,000 fans would be willing, even back then, to fork over a buck to see their Hogs scrimmage in Little Rock while half that or fewer could barely muster enough energy to see them for free in Fayetteville.

So, yes, just as we say when we opine about UA games being played in or taken away from Little Rock these days, what with a much larger stadium now on campus: Times have changed.

Arkansas played a spring game in Little Rock well into the Lou Holtz era before the NCAA, for some stupid reason that has been typical of NCAA rulings for years, decided that universities could only play intrasquad exhibitions (football and basketball) on campus. The NCAA has since relaxed those rules somewhat — programs such as Virginia and North Carolina have taken their spring practices on the road in recent years, and it probably would be a well-received move by Arkansas when it starts winning again — but the UA won’t be playing a second Red-White game, not with only 15 practices nowadays instead of 20 or 25 from days gone by.

Teams, especially rebuilding ones like Arkansas, have to cram a lot of work into those precious allotted practices, and only 10 of those can be in full pads. Arkansas has managed to stretch its spring work and teaching time over a month.

Typically, at most programs, spring a proving ground for the players who haven’t cracked the two-deep chart to make a move before summer rolls around. Arkansas, though, had lots of areas with nothing firmly set, and this makes Saturday’s 1 p.m. Razorback Red-White Game at Fayetteville an attractive one.

Back in those aforementioned glory days, the senior-to-be starters got most, if not all, of the spring off. Their spots were locked up, and everybody else was scrambling for a backup role. These days, only returning senior defensive end Trey Flowers, who passed on a chance to enter the upcoming NFL Draft, is sitting out the game. Rising senior cornerback Tevin Mitchel would be playing, but a hamstring injury will keep him sidelined.

Spring has served as a proving ground at quarterback, particularly for the backup position behind assumed starter Brandon Allen, whowhat to watch for in razorback red-white game may be the most secure-in-his-starting-role player in the country who’s coming off of a poor previous season. His brother, redshirt freshman Austin Allen, and true freshman Rafe Peavey, passing up his high school spring semester to participate in UA’s spring drills, have been good enough in their battle for backup that last year’s second-stringer, rising senior A.J. Derby, is now making eye-catching grabs of passes from his new tight end position, while redshirt freshman Damon “Duwop” Mitchell has been asked to give wide receiver a try and reportedly looks the part for it, too. The question on the latter is whether he’ll realize his future isn’t at quarterback and stick around in Fayetteville after the semester ends (and one might wish he could get a visit from one-time high school quarterback Steve Atwater about the benefits of moving to safety in college, as Atwater did for Arkansas on the way to an illustrious pro career).

Besides the quarterback position, Arkansas is trying to find who can play in the defensive backfield and at linebacker — two areas that appeared poorly manned and maybe poorly taught last season. The Hogs also need young defensive tackles to step up and for another end to secure a spot opposite Flowers.

The only area on offense that seems to lack any question as to ability and depth is at running back, where rising junior Jonathan Williams (also being afforded little pounding in drills as a reward for his experience) and sophomore-to-be Alex Collins return, along with sophomore-to-be Korliss Marshall, who was sidelined with an undisclosed illness for part of the spring session.

Already, incoming true freshman Jared Cornelius and junior college transfer Cody Hollister have stepped up to be two of the team’s top four receivers, according to head coach Bret Bielema. Keon Hatcher and D’Arthur Cowan return there, and Demetrius Wilson is back after a year on the shelf with a knee injury.

Hunter Henry is back for his sophomore year at tight end and in what he has said is the best shape he’s ever been in, while Derby has been a pleasant surprise at the position.

what to watch for in 2014 Razorback Spring gameDenver Kirkland and Dan Skipper, who started as true freshmen in the O-line last season, figure to play wherever they want to, and senior Brey Cook is back to man one of the tackles. The coaching staff will name a starter coming out of spring at center and right guard, though it isn’t likely to sound convincing, as much moving around as we’ve seen at those spots through the month. For now, it’s Mitch Smothers at center, replacing the standout Travis Swanson, and Luke Charpentier, who backed up Swanson last year, moving to guard. A lot of other names have been tossed around, and some of those players have started briefly too, but nobody else seems to be stepping up this spring, which might be a concern. Or, it might simply serve as an opportunity for two or three touted incoming players off the most recent recruiting haul (freshmen Frank Ragnow and Brian Wallace and soon-to-arrive juco transfer Sebastian Tretola, perhaps).

Arkansas’ field goal kicker for next season is likely not on campus yet (signee Cole Hedllund).

So, all those questions have resulted in a spring practice that has demanded some attention, and it will wrap up Saturday with the first-unit offense and defense in Red going up against the rest of the squad in White.

Based on that breakdown, the Red ought to win in a rout, but Bielema could pull a fast one like Lou Holtz did many years back, when he let the first-team Red run out to a huge halftime lead, then made them play from behind by the margin they’d set in the first 30 minutes. Darn if they didn’t nearly pull out the victory.

Arkansas is unlikely to show any surprises (plays or formations) it might spring in next season’s opener at Auburn. The Hogs staff may show Auburn what it wants the Tigers to think they’ll do, just as Auburn showed some things defensively in its spring game last weekend that it hopes the Hogs will spend time worrying about. Both the staffs understand all that, and teams have been doing that for decades, even before nearly every spring game was carried on ESPN’s variety of outlets and available for taping.

What everybody, including Auburn’s spies and diehard Hog fans, will want to focus on Saturday are these key areas:

  • How well do Arkansas’ defenders tackle now under new coordinator Robb Smith, and what is all this “flying to the ball” talk we’re hearing? Supposedly with a new sheriff in town, there’s a whole new approach and aggressiveness. You can hide formations and stunts from the fall’s opponents, but if there really is a new, physical attitude at Reynolds Razorback Stadium, that should be obvious Saturday. Who brings it? Are any of them safeties or linebackers?
  • What does Brandon Allen’s arm strength look like compared, one, to Brandon Allen at the end of last season, when his best and most accurate passes were short perimeter throws, thanks to his shoulder separation; and, two, how does his arm strength compare to his brother’s and to Peavey’s? Can any of the three quarterbacks get the ball down the field vertically with some velocity and accuracy? Can Arkansas stretch the field and make opposing safeties play deeper than 12 yards from the line of scrimmage?
  • Does Brandon Allen still go immediately to the first receiver he sees? Can he look off the secondary? This isn’t exactly among the better defenses he’s going to see next fall, not by a long shot, but he’s already thrown a fair share of interceptions this spring. Plus, he had 10 last season in 11 games vs. 13 touchdown passes; Tyler Wilson went an entire spring getting picked four times in all drills.
  • Can this group of receivers consistently catch the football? For that matter, can the quarterbacks put the ball in a position consistently where the receivers don’t have to look like Olympic gymnasts to make a catch? Is there any new speed at the position that might stretch the field? Remember, again, that getting behind Arkansas’ returning defensive backs still isn’t indicative of being able to do it against the SEC West.
  • Can the cornerbacks press in coverage better — understanding that these receivers still aren’t the cream of the SEC crop they’re seeing this spring?
  • Watch the interior matchups, how Arkansas’ defensive tackles play in stopping the run, but also note how well the starting guard-center-guard area for the Red blocks against the backups. They should control the opposition there on Saturday, or else they have trouble ahead.

* * *

Other key points fans will need to know if they are going to Fayetteville on Saturday:

  • The somewhat surging UA baseball team, now ranked 24th nationally, will be playing host to always pesky Auburn in a three-game series at Baum Stadium. Saturday’s game is set for 6:05 p.m. The series opens with a 6:35 p.m. Friday game and wraps up with Sunday’s 1:05 p.m. finale.
  • The baseball game requires a paid ticket, but all events around the football game and the annual RazorFest event outside Reynolds Razorback Stadium are free.
  • If fans can’t make it to Fayetteville, CST will broadcast the game live and ESPN3 will carry it in areas not served by Cox.
  • Football posters will be given away to fans at the entry spots at the stadium.
  • Fans can see the new 2014 football uniforms on display outside Hog Heaven in the south end zone concourse.
  • Champions for Kids will hold its annual RazorFest in Lot 44 and the east and south concourses of the stadium starting at 10 a.m. Many former Hog greats will be on hand, along with a fun zone, games, music, mascots and giveaways. Visit www.championsforkids.org for more information.
  • The Broyles Center Museum will open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The Bud Walton Arena Hog Heaven will open at 9 a.m. Saturday. Stadium gates 1, 12, 15 and 16 will open at 10 a.m. The team’s Hog Walk will be start at the top of Lot 44 (north of the stadium) at approximately 10:50 a.m.
  • Hog fans can see the Arkansas Volleyball team play its Red-White Game at Barnhill Arena starting at 11 a.m.
  • The upper decks at Reynolds Razorback Stadium will not be open for seating.

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