A lot of attention has been paid to the left tackle spot, but Arkansas football appears to also have an in-season battle quietly brewing at cornerback.
When healthy, preseason All-SEC selection Dwight McGlothern is comfortably locked in as one of the two starters, but who lines up opposite him in the Arkansas vs Texas A&M matchup on Saturday is up in the air.
Former five-star recruit and Georgia transfer Jaheim Singletary won the job coming out of fall camp. After a tough showing against LSU, though, freshman Jaylon Braxton could get the nod against the Aggies.
“He’s definitely pushing to be a starter,” Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman told reporters Monday.
It would actually mark the second start of the year for the Frisco, Texas, native because he also started against BYU. He came off the bench against Western Carolina, Kent State and LSU. That means Braxton has already played in four games and his next regular-season appearance will burn his redshirt.
Getting immediate playing time wasn’t particularly surprising for the 6-foot-0, 185-pound cornerback, as he was a four-star recruit and one of the highest ranked players in Arkansas’ 2023 signing class. In fact, he was ranked as the No. 80 overall prospect in the country by On3.
“A lot of it is (because) he came in ready,” Pittman said. “He’s a grown young man. He’s an exceptional athlete. Doing some really good things, and he will continue to get more and more reps as the season goes on.”
However, it wasn’t exactly a smooth transition. Even though he was an early enrollee who went through spring ball and eventually earned a spot in the two-deep, Braxton struggled in his first collegiate action.
In the opener against Western Carolina, he got beat a couple of times and earned a subpar 53.7 grade from Pro Football Focus on 41 snaps. The following week, he was limited to special teams and didn’t play at all on defense despite McGlothern dealing with a turf toe injury.
That made it surprising when Braxton started against BYU the next time out, but Pittman said afterward that he earned the right by how he performed in practice. He carried that over into the game, notching a nice pass breakup on the Cougars’ second possession and posting a 65.3 grade on 26 snaps.
It was the kind of improvement Pittman said can be expected from freshmen early in the season.
“You have the talent, and then playing builds your confidence on that talent and you kind of turn it loose a little bit more,” Pittman said. “Or you understand your responsibilities a little bit more and you become the person on the field that you’re capable of being.”
Braxton was even better against LSU, earning a 73.2 PFF grade on 25 snaps. He was targeted just once and initially got beat by Malik Nabers, but recovered in time to break up the pass, drawing some praise from ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit in the process.
“I’m starting to get more comfortable in the game,” Braxton said this week. “I can say the first game I played in, I was just getting my feet wet and getting used to the college atmosphere. But I can say I’m pretty settled in now and ready to go.”
Throw in the fact that Singletary played just 32 snaps and struggled, allowing three touchdown passes and posting a 43.6 PFF grade, Braxton is threatening to surpass him on the depth chart. Singletary is still listed as the starter, but Braxton got reps with the first-team defense during a portion of Tuesday’s practice that was open to the media.
He is one of six true freshmen who’ve appeared in all four Arkansas football games and are on the brink of burning their redshirt. Another six have played in at least one game, while the remaining nine freshmen have yet to make their collegiate debut.
Here’s a breakdown of those players…
Freshmen Who’ve Appeared in All Four Games
TE Luke Hasz
No freshman has had a bigger impact for the Razorbacks this season than Luke Hasz. Not only has he started all four games, but he’s played 229 offensive snaps – the fifth-most on the team and more than any other skill position player outside of KJ Jefferson.
Fresh off a 116-yard, two-touchdown performance at LSU, Hasz is up to 15 receptions for 239 yards and three touchdowns through four games. That puts him on pace to out-perform Hunter Henry’s freshman season.
“Luke himself catches the ball incredible and he can run,” Pittman said. “We continue to work on his blocking, but he’s a big-time weapon running routes, and we’re adding stuff for him each week.”
Hasz ranks second among SEC tight ends in both receptions and receiving yards, trailing only Georgia superstar Brock Bowers, and actually leads the conference in touchdown catches by a tight end. In fact, his 88.7 receiving grade from Pro Football Focus leads all Power Five tight ends, regardless of classification.
It’s safe to say that he is living up to the hype that came with being a unanimous four-star recruit and ranked as high as No. 83 overall by ESPN.
“He’s a very talented guy, but we’ve all seen a lot of talent that doesn’t play like he does,” Pittman said. “They just have talent. The offseason is very important to him. He’s just a football player. Very passionate about studying, lifting. Wants to be the best in those things and for him to do what he’s been able to do as a true freshman is pretty good.”
CB Jaylon Braxton
As mentioned above, Jaylon Braxton has already started one game and is making a strong push to replace Jaheim Singletary in the starting lineup.
Through four games, he has five tackles and three pass breakups – the latter of which is tied with Auburn’s Kayin Lee for the most among true freshmen in the SEC. According to Pro Football Focus, he’s played 92 total defensive snaps and earned a 63.6 grade while also contributing on four different special teams units – on which he’s played another 65 snaps.
LB Brad Spence
The only other true freshman who has started a game this season, Brad Spence got the nod in Week 2 against Kent State because Chris Paul Jr. was serving a first-half suspension for targeting. That came on the heels of a debut highlighted by an 85-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Spence played 19 defensive snaps against Western Carolina and 16 against Kent State, but has taken the field on defense just once the last two games and that came on one of LSU’s last plays of the game when Arkansas was trying to jar the ball loose near the goal line. Most of his action has been on special teams, as he was on the kickoff unit the first three weeks and then joined the field goal block unit against LSU.
Through four games, Spence is officially credited with six tackles and the aforementioned pick-six. Pro Football Focus gives him an 86.4 overall grade on 36 snaps, but that’s still skewed by his 91.6 grade against Western Carolina.
DB TJ Metcalf
The bulk of TJ Metcalf’s action on defense came in the opener against Western Carolina, when he played 33 snaps. However, he did get on the field for two plays against BYU and three plays against LSU.
Despite being listed as the backup nickel on the depth chart, Metcalf is actually third in the pecking order because starting safety Hudson Clark also plays the position. That said, Pittman acknowledged that he’s in the mix and probably the fifth safety/nickel in the secondary behind the starters (Clark, Jayden Johnson and Lorando Johnson) and backup safety Alfahiym Walcott.
“He’s done a really good job,” Pittman said. “We wouldn’t be afraid to put him in the game and all those type things. Right now, we just think…the older guys are ahead of him, but I think he’s going to be a really good player here.”
Metcalf recovered a fumble on what was believed to be his first collegiate snap against Western Carolina and has also made five tackles. He has a 62.0 PFF grade on 38 snaps, plus has played 27 special teams snaps.
RB Isaiah Augustave
A four-star recruit coming out of Florida, Isaiah Augustave joined a loaded running back room and that has contributed to him having only four carries for 20 yards – all against Western Carolina.
However, he also got on the field for an offensive snap against Kent State as part of the Razorbacks’ jumbo package that involves three big running backs lined up behind KJ Jefferson under center. Augustave was lined up in that formation against LSU, too, before a false start backed them up from the 1-yard line.
Even though he’s appeared in all four games, Augustave has played just five offensive snaps and 11 special teams snaps – all as part of the punt return unit – this season.
DB Dylan Hasz
The twin brother of Luke Hasz and a two-star recruit, many viewed Dylan Hasz as a tag-along in an effort to secure his brother’s commitment. Although he hasn’t contributed anything on defense outside of the opener, he’s proven to be worthy of the scholarship Arkansas gave him.
A member of three units – kickoff return, kickoff coverage and punt return – Hasz has played 58 special teams snaps through four weeks. That is tied for the fifth-most on the team. He’s also earned a solid 67.8 special teams grade from PFF.
Other Arkansas Freshmen Who’ve Played in 2023
Last year, tight end Ty Washington played in the first four games of the season and asked the coaching staff to shut him down in order to preserve his redshirt. Pittman obliged and he ended up getting to play in the Liberty Bowl anyway because of a rule change that bowl games don’t count toward that four-game limit.
On Wednesday, Pittman said no one had asked him to do that this year, but did reveal that there were two – maybe three – freshmen he and his coaching staff would have to talk about in the coming weeks, but they hadn’t yet reached the four-game mark.
He didn’t reveal any names, but two other freshmen have played multiple games and four more have appeared in just one. Here’s a rundown of those players:
LB Alex Sanford
- Appeared in three games, missing only the BYU game… Biggest impact so far may have been simulating LSU’s Harold Perkins Jr. on scout team… Played a season-high 15 special teams snaps against LSU
DT Ian Geffrard
- Appeared in two games, missing the Kent State and BYU games… Played 21 defensive snaps against Western Carolina and made two tackles… Played one defensive snap against LSU and it came near the goal line when Arkansas was trying to strip the ball in the closing seconds… His presence on the field for that play might have been because defensive tackle Anthony Booker Jr. was out with an injury
DB RJ Johnson
- Lone appearance was against Western Carolina… Played two snaps on kickoff coverage
LB Carson Dean
- Lone appearance was against Western Carolina… Played seven defensive snaps
WR Davion Dozier
- Lone appearance was against Western Carolina… Played five offensive snaps and caught a 14-yard touchdown… Also played two special teams snaps (one kickoff coverage, one punt return)
DE Quincy Rhodes Jr.
- Lone appearance was against Western Carolina… Made one tackle… Played 12 defensive snaps and 13 special teams snaps before being ejected for targeting and getting injured on the same play… Missed the next few weeks with a concussion… Returned to practice this week
Have Not Played for Arkansas Football
Here’s a rundown of Arkansas football’s nine true freshmen who have yet to appear in a game this season…
QB Malachi Singleton
- Split third-team reps with Cade Fortin throughout fall camp… Been on the travel squad, but has not appeared in a game
DB Dallas Young
- Been dealing with an undisclosed injury
DB Christian Ford
- Has not been on the travel squad
OL Joey Su’a
- Been dealing with an undisclosed injury
OL Paris Patterson
- Traveled for the Western Carolina game, but not the LSU game
OL Luke Brown
- Been dealing with an undisclosed injury
TE Shamar Easter
- Has not been on the travel squad… Sam Pittman revealed last week that he’s gained about 20 pounds since arriving on campus this summer and that he is getting valuable work on the scout team… “Some of the things that we’re asking him to do, he was really never asked to do in high school,” Pittman said. “The things he was asked to do in high school, he’s doing well. Some of the stuff is new to him. He’s having to learn.”
WR Dazmin James
- Been on the travel squad, but has not appeared in a game
DL Kaleb James
- Has not been on the travel squad
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