Let the Gamemanship Begin: Apparent Smoke Screens Surround Arkansas vs Cincinnati

Sam Pittman, Luke Fickell, Arkansas vs Cincinnati, Arkansas football
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics / Cincinnati Athletics

FAYETTEVILLE — Whether it’s just a smokescreen or actually part of Saturday’s game plan remains to be seen, but Malik Hornsby was spotted getting work at wide receiver again Tuesday afternoon.

Granted, the media has been limited to watching only about 20 minutes of each practice, but it was the first time since the start of fall camp that the backup quarterback has been seen playing the position after getting quite a bit of work there in the spring — and it just so happened to come on the same day Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell declined to reveal his starting quarterback.

In the first part of the media’s viewing period Tuesday, Hornsby lined up out wide with the first-team offense during an 11-on-11 team segment. When the Razorbacks split up into individual drills, he followed the wide receivers.

The quarterbacks and receivers then reconvened to do routes-on-air, but Hornsby stood off to the side getting one-on-one coaching from wide receivers coach Kenny Guiton. He eventually hopped in with the quarterbacks and threw some passes and then jogged out to a receivers line to run a route.

“Sometimes we just want to get a good look at him and see if he’s comfortable out there or not,” quarterback KJ Jefferson told reporters afterward. “So it’s all just mainly a test — just seeing, does he look comfortable out there?”

Evolution of Malik Hornsby as a WR

When Hornsby made his first appearance at the new position midway through spring ball, he was talked about a legitimate option at wide receiver. Head coach Pittman said one of the conditions in allowing him to return to the team from the transfer portal was that he’d give receiver a shot and his teammates raved about how seamlessly he transitioned between the two spots in practice, which Arkansas went through the trouble of adjusting to make such an experiment possible.

It started out with pre-snap motions, jet-sweep handoffs and other gimmicky-type plays, but the package slowly expanded to include him going deep — he actually made a couple of impressive catches against top cornerbacks — and even other routes.

The thought was that his role would expand during fall camp, something Pittman even mentioned after the first practice. Even though Hornsby stayed in the quarterback room and never attended wide receiver meetings, Guiton kept the idea alive by repeating the line that he was too talented to keep on the sideline.

“He’s a guy that can’t sit over there and watch,” Guiton said on Aug. 9. “He has to get a chance to go affect the game, and we want that chance for him.”

While he was reportedly getting work at wide receiver later in practices and in scrimmages, the media only ever saw Hornsby running the second-team offense at quarterback. The former four-star recruit seemed to display improved accuracy in the limited time media saw of practice, plus the wide receiver group looked completely different.

Expected bell cows Jadon Haselwood and Warren Thompson kicked their game up a notch, transfer Matt Landers and freshman Isaiah Sategna entered the fold, freshman Quincey McAdoo appeared to settle in after an unimpressive spring, and second-year players like Ketron Jackson Jr., Bryce Stephens and Jaedon Wilson displayed the natural progression you’d expect.

With all of those factors at play, Pittman started downplaying the potential impact of Hornsby as a wide receiver.

“Now all of a sudden you’ve got all these wideouts that are playing pretty good ball,” Pittman said on Aug. 11. “That doesn’t mean that Malik won’t continue to go out there. It’s just harder to put him out there if we have to take somebody off the field, and my thinking before was that he would be by far the best one we had out there.”

About a week later, offensive coordinator Kendal Briles said he was still getting some wide receiver work, but fell in line with Pittman’s comments about the receivers as a whole.

“It helps that some of those guys that weren’t here in the spring, or didn’t perform at high levels in the spring, are doing that now,” Briles said. “So it takes a little bit of pressure off of that, but he’s still a guy that can play multiple positions.”

By the time school started and the Razorbacks began preparing for Saturday’s top-25 showdown with No. 23 Cincinnati, the idea of Hornsby being a contributor at wide receiver for more than a handful of trick plays here and there was effectively dead to those outside of the program.

Speculating About the Razorbacks’ Reasoning

So that begs the question: Why, four days before the opener, would Arkansas football revive it?

The most innocent, and perhaps the most logical, answer is that the Razorbacks never fully got rid of the Malik Hornsby-wide receiver package and always planned to have it available to use against the Bearcats. After all, less than 20 percent of practice during fall camp was open to reporters and it’d make a lot of sense if they worked on it without them in attendance.

“Are we advertising for Cincinnati?” Pittman said Wednesday when asked if they still planned to use Hornsby at receiver. “We certainly have used him out there all year and that’s obviously a possibility that he plays out there.”

The third-year coach did seem genuine in his comments about being surprised at how much the wide receivers have developed since the spring, though. It was easy to infer that one major reason Hornsby got a look there in the first place was because not only is he extremely fast and talented, but the position needed someone to step up.

That opens the door to speculation that Tuesday’s move might have been a little bit of gamesmanship by Pittman. He knew when the media would be out there and likely knew Hornsby getting work at wide receiver would be the biggest story to come out of practice — which would then make its way to Fickell’s office in Cincinnati.

After the Razorbacks first scrimmage of fall camp, starter KJ Jefferson mentioned that having two quarterbacks on the field at the same time creates chaos for the defense because they don’t know exactly where the ball will end up, creating an advantage for the offense. That advantage applies to preparation, as well, because now Cincinnati must dedicate practice and meeting time to how they’ll defend it because Hornsby showed big-play ability in limited opportunities last season.

It’s also worth noting that despite improving his accuracy over the offseason, Briles said before Arkansas’ final scrimmage that walk-on transfer Cade Fortin — who began his career as a scholarship player at North Carolina — had actually been more efficient throwing the ball throughout camp. That led to speculation about who was truly the backup quarterback.

Regardless of who’s No. 2, Fortin’s performance since arriving as a midyear enrollee gave the coaching staff a peace of mind with its quarterback depth, making them more open to using Hornsby at a position that could potentially open him up to injuries.

That depth has been seemingly bolstered even further with the return of Kade Renfro, another walk-on transfer who began his career on scholarship at Ole Miss. He is less than nine months removed from tearing his ACL in the Razorbacks’ bowl practices last month and appears to be moving around well, but hasn’t been fully cleared yet.

“He hasn’t been cleared yet for any type of contact, but he’s been in on scout team work,” Pittman said Wednesday. “(He’s in) on the throws – a lot of the throws, a lot of 7-on-7, scout team work and things of that nature.”

Before his injury, Renfro looked like a promising backup candidate capable of doing what Fortin has done with pushing Hornsby. Having him back to at least run the scout team helps with the depth, but once he’s cleared, the Razorbacks will have a quarterback room much deeper than you’d expect for one with only two players on scholarship.

Finally, it’s also worth considering the fact that Jadon Haselwood has been dealing with an undisclosed injury. He missed some practice time last week, but has been back on the field in a green non-contact jersey the last two days.

Pittman has said he believes the injury won’t cause him to miss the Cincinnati game, but if there’s even a chance Haselwood is unavailable, Arkansas might want to have an extra weapon ready to go at receiver.

A Tactical Advantage for Cincinnati Football

Luckily for the Razorbacks, there is no drama surrounding its starting quarterback. KJ Jefferson is coming off a breakout season and viewed as a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate entering 2022. Not only did he complete 67.3% of his passes and throw only four interceptions to 21 touchdowns, but Jefferson was also Arkansas’ leading rusher and added six more scores on the ground.

Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell described him as a dual-threat quarterback who will “run you over,” which puts even more pressure on defenses.

“It’s hard to simulate a 6-foot-4, 245-pound guy running downhill as a quarterback,” Fickell said. “You just have to be prepared for it. You’ve got to be able to tackle well, you’ve got to be able to tackle physically and you’ve got to be able to do it on a consistent basis.”

The same cannot be said about the Bearcats’ quarterback situation. They split first-team reps between Ben Bryant and Evan Prater throughout spring ball and fall camp and have yet to name a starter.

However, Fickell told reporters Tuesday that he and his staff have settled on a starter. He just isn’t going to reveal it before Saturday.

“I don’t think there’s any reason to talk about it,” Fickell said. “I don’t know that it does anything good for our team. It doesn’t do anything good in the opponents’ preparation of things. … For us, obviously you’ve got to a have a plan and you’ve got to move forward with it. But there’s no reason for us to kind of announce things.”

The competition lasted longer than expected, Fickell admitted, but now it gives Cincinnati a tactical advantage because the Razorbacks have to prepare for both of them. While the overall offensive philosophy wouldn’t change depending on which quarterback was in the game, he said the two quarterbacks have different skillsets, so the Bearcats would have to adapt their play calling to an extent.

“(Bryant) can read and make every throw on the field, so we’ve just got to cover up and make sure we know our assignments,” Arkansas safety Jalen Catalon said. “With the other guy, I feel like he’s more of a runner, but we haven’t seen him since last season in film, so we don’t know if he’s going to throw it or run it.”

Cincinnati is breaking in a new quarterback because four-year starter Desmond Ridder is now in the NFL after his record-breaking career.

He was a true dual-threat quarterback, throwing for 10,239 yards and 87 touchdowns while also adding 2,180 yards and 28 scores on the ground, so the Razorbacks have plenty of film to see how the Bearcats might use the varying skills despite them being split between two players rather than combined in one.

There could be some wrinkles because offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock left to take the same job at LSU this offseason, but Cincinnati replaced him with Gino Guidugli, who was previously the Bearcats’ quarterbacks coach.

“They had a running quarterback, a throwing quarterback, in one guy last year, so you can kind of see what they would do with a runner, because they ran him a lot, and then you kind of see the route trees and all these things,” Pittman said. “I think they’ll be very similar and — if this makes sense — they’ll run more of what they’ve already run.

“If it’s a running quarterback, they’ll run more runs with him, and if it’s not, they’ll probably run the ball a little bit more and go back to their base inside/outside zone type schemes that they’ve run for years.”

Pittman added that he wouldn’t be surprised if Cincinnati played both quarterbacks Saturday. While that wasn’t something Fickell said he was considering, he didn’t totally rule it out Tuesday.

“We’ve always got plans, (but) plans are subject to change,” Fickell said. “Plans don’t always come out the way they’re supposed to because when the foot hits the ball, a lot things have to adapt and adjust.”

Check out what Luke Fickell said about his quarterback battle this week…

YouTube video

Cincinnati Football QB Pulls a Jimmy Whitt Jr.

The quarterback who most Cincinnati football experts seem to be projecting as the starter is Ben Bryant, who followed a career path similar to that of former Arkansas basketball player Jimmy Whitt Jr. by beginning his career with the Bearcats and transferring out, only to eventually return to his original school.

After redshirting his first year and then spending two seasons as Ridder’s backup, Bryant went in the portal and landed at Eastern Michigan. In his lone season with the Eagles, he competed 279 of 408 passes (68.4%) for 3,121 yards, 14 touchdowns and seven interceptions while leading them to a bowl game. That gives Bryant the edge in experience, as he’s actually been a starter.

“(I learned) just how to lead a team,” Bryant told the Cincinnati Inquirer of his one season at the helm of the Eagles offense. “That playing experience is something you can’t get just in practice. So learning how to deal with those situations, and when it really comes down to crunch time, how you handle that is really important.”

Evan Prater, on the other hand, is a hometown hero who went 40-2 and won Ohio’s Mr. Football Award as a senior at Wyoming High School in Cincinnati. He was the first Cincinnati-area player to win that award since 1992.

Selected to play in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, Prater was a unanimous four-star prospect and ranked as high as No. 45 overall — and the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback, behind only Bryce Young — by 247Sports, making him Cincinnati’s highest-ranked signee in the recruiting rankings era.

He was Ridder’s backup last season and showcased those dual-threat skills in a small sample size, rushing for 105 yards and two touchdowns on only 12 carries, but completed only 5 of 11 passes for 38 yards, two scores and one interception. There’s no denying he’s the better runner, as he also racked up 4,124 yards and 73 touchdowns on the ground — one more score than he had through the air — as a three-year starter in high school.

That’s a stark contrast to Bryant’s game. More of a pocket passer, he actually finished with minus-43 yards and just two rushing touchdowns. Excluding sacks, which he had a lot of because Eastern Michigan allowed the eighth-most sacks in the FBS last year, Bryant still had only 287 yards on 47 attempts.

While he may not be as fast or mobile as Prater, Bryant still averaged 6.1 yards on his non-sack carries, so he’s mobile enough, especially considering he’ll be playing behind an offensive line that returns all five starters from last year. Throw in his elite arm and there’s a reason he checked in at No. 61 on The Athletic’s list of the 100 most impactful newcomers out of the portal.

Battle of Gamesmanship

Of course, neither Sam Pittman nor Luke Fickell are doing anything groundbreaking here. Gamesmanship is perfectly normal, if not expected, in Week 1 of a college football season.

Quarterbacks certainly get the most attention, but it doesn’t stop there.

There’s really only one unsettled spot on Arkansas’ first unit, the second cornerback spot opposite Hudson Clark, and Pittman said Wednesday that even though he now has a good idea what they’ll do there, he wasn’t ready to reveal those plans.

Replacing nine players taken in the NFL Draft, there are a lot more question marks in Cincinnati’s starting group and that’s reflected on the depth chart it released this week. Seven of the Bearcats’ 22 positions featured an “or” between at least two different players vying for starting jobs.

Fickell likely knows who will trot out there first and probably doesn’t want to give too much away to Arkansas, but he said all of the “or” listings had an in-house purpose, too.

“There’s a human element to being that starter guy and that guy that walks out on the first snap, but you can’t let that soak into all the things,” Fickell said. “That’s why there’s a lot of ‘or’s. There’s a lot of guys that are gonna play significant amounts. If we can play more guys at 50-50 or 60-40, I think we’ll be better in Game 1 and a hell of a lot better as the season progresses.”

Ultimately, Saturday’s top-25 showdown — the UA’s first in a season opener since 1980 and first ever in Fayetteville — won’t be decided with depth charts and comments to the media. The Razorbacks and Bearcats will settle things on the field at Reynolds Razorback Stadium starting at 2:30 p.m. in a game televised nationally on ESPN.

Check out what Sam Pittman said in his final interview with the media before Arkansas vs Cincinnati…

YouTube video


Press Conference Insight from Arkansas Football Players

On Arkansas vs Cincinnati

KJ Jefferson: “We look forward to the game. We know it’s going to be a competitive game. We know it’s going to be fun. The atmosphere is going to be fun and great. We’re looking for a sold-out crowd just like the Texas game was. We’re all just hyped and anxious to get out there in the stadium and play against another team.”

Jalen Catalon: “It’s an exciting time, first game of the year against a worthy ranked opponent like Cincinnati with a great coaching staff and great players. We’ve been riding for this moment since the offseason started and we’ve had great leadership on the team. We’ve had a lot of good practices put together from fall camp to the Cincinnati practices this week. We’ve just got to keep the string going along, and when September 3rd comes around, we’ll be ready to go.”

KJ Jefferson on Cincinnati’s defense: “They’re still a really good defense. They do great things up front as far as clogging the run. They also have great DBs on the back end. They can play a lot of different coverages and disguise a lot. So just being able to come out, don’t hurt oursevles on offense, start fast and try to get the tempo rolling as quickly as possible.”

Jalen Catalon on Cincinnati’s big boys on offense: “They have a veteran line. A really good O-line, like I said. They’re ranked for a reason. They protect the quarterback well, give him time to throw and so I know we have some great stuff put in with Coach Adams, Scherer and Odom, that trio together, for the run for them and everything. Just trusting the game plan we have set out before us and being able to execute it and make sure everybody is assignment sound and everybody’s trusting each other and all 11 guys doing one job.”

On Luke Fickell’s prediction that the game will be physical and nasty:

Catalon: “I would say the exact same thing. I would say we want a physical game. We love it because we train every single day, we’re going head-on every single day and been coming at it and going against each other every single day and banging. When it gets down to the game, I mean, we’ll be ready for it, for sure. Like I said, we’re excited to be able to play them and it’s going to be a nasty game. Let’s do it.”

More coverage of Arkansas vs Cincinnati from BoAS…

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