FAYETTEVILLE — After seven regular practices, the Arkansas football team kicked things up a notch with its first scrimmage Saturday morning.
With the season opener three weeks away, the Razorbacks got about 110 plays in on the practice field, head coach Sam Pittman said, with both good-on-good periods that pit the first-team offense and defense against each other (as well as the second and third units), and periods that featured the 1s against the 2s.
In addition to the traditional scrimmage reps, the Razorbacks worked on third-down situations of various lengths, high- and low-red zone situations and a two-minute drill.
Two days before the scrimmage, Pittman told reporters he wasn’t sure if the scrimmage would be full tackle or not. It turns out he opted against it, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a physical day.
“We thudded and it was real physical,” Pittman said. “We had SEC officials come in today (and) I let them run the practice. I mean, you had to knock the heck out of a guy for him to be down. Actually, it’s harder to thud than it is to tackle because you can’t leave your feet. You’ve got to run your hips through and take another step and tackle him.”
During the third-down period, Pittman said the offensive line “protected extremely well,” helping the offense convert six or seven of the eight plays.
The two-minute drill had mixed results. Starting with the ball at the 50 and 22 seconds on the clock with no timeouts, the offense needed to get into field goal range.
The first-team offense managed to do just that, even though Cam Little – who had already made kicks from 41, 42, 49 and 52 yards out – missed the mid-range field goal, but the second-team offense didn’t come very close.
Overall, Pittman said he was pleased with how things went, but acknowledged they still have things to work on before Cincinnati comes to town Sept. 3.
“The tempo was good and I feel like our team is in pretty good shape,” Pittman said. “I think we’re in good shape with three weeks to go, but we’re certainly not game ready.”
The scrimmage was closed to the media, but Pittman, quarterback KJ Jefferson and linebacker Bumper Pool did interviews afterward. Here are the key takeaways from the day, based on what they said…
Assessing the Passing Game
Perhaps the biggest takeaways from the scrimmage was that KJ Jefferson performed like you’d expect a potential All-SEC quarterback to perform.
Pittman said he threw the ball “exceptionally well” and praised him for his accuracy, while Jefferson said it was an “explosive” day for the offense with multiple shots down the field early on.
“I think I had a pretty good performance starting out,” Jefferson said. “I gotta give credit to my O-line and the receivers making plays, helping me out from that standpoint, but I feel like I did have a great day today.”
It sounds like Jefferson did a good job distributing the ball to all of his wide receivers, too. Matt Landers — the Georgia/Toledo transfer — hauled in a 50-yard touchdown and another 65-yard gain, Warren Thompson had a 40-yard touchdown and Jadon Haselwood was targeted in the end zone and caught a 25-yard pass.
Considering the Razorbacks are replacing a big chunk of their receiver snaps from last year, it was an encouraging performance.
“That group, that unit there has gone — (over) the first eight practices — from, ‘Man, we’ve got a concern’ to ‘Man, somebody else has got a concern about our guys,’” Pittman said. “Really pleased.”
Jefferson already has a good connection with tight end Trey Knox, as seen in various two-minute drills last season, and it seems like that has carried over into this year.
He hauled in 20- and 35-yard passes Saturday, showcasing the fact that Arkansas might actually have a pass-catching threat at the tight end position in 2022.
“Nobody could possibly love Blake Kern more than I do,” Pittman said. “I love him. (Knox) just gives us a little bit more of a pass-catching guy.”
Beyond the first group, Malik Hornsby started out with the second-team offense at quarterback, but also got 10-12 reps at wide receiver. That allowed him to rest a little bit and give Cade Fortin — the North Carolina/South Florida transfer — some snaps with the second unit.
According to a UA spokesperson, freshman tight end Tyrus Washington grabbed a 25-yard pass thrown by Hornsby.
Fortin threw the lone interception, as he had a pass tipped into the air and walk-on safety McKinley Williams came down with it. That was with the third unit.
Defensive Standouts for Arkansas Football
One name that consistently came up in the post-scrimmage interviews was Drew Sanders, the athletic linebacker transfer from Alabama.
Depending on who you listen to, he had quite a few sacks in the scrimmage. Pittman said he had a couple, while a UA spokesperson credited him with one — which can be attributed to the fact that quarterbacks aren’t live. Teammate Bumper Pool said he had even more.
“There was times where we were getting back to the quarterback,” Pool said. “We had a lot of sacks. It was just credit to guys working pass rush moves. We do it a lot in practice. I think Drew had like three sacks.”
Another guy who stood out on that side of the ball Saturday was Terry Hampton, another transfer. The defensive tackle from Arkansas State received quite a bit of praise from Pittman.
“A guy I really like on the defensive front and is playing his butt off is Terry Hampton,” Pittman said. “He’s playing really good football right now for us. He just shows up all the time, everywhere.”
One of the Razorbacks’ traditional recruits, freshman defensive lineman Nico Davillier also caught Pittman’s eye with a play he made during the scrimmage.
“Nico ran down a ball today now that a 280-pound guy shouldn’t be able to do,” Pittman said. “I know I can’t and that’s about where I’m hovering.”
A spokesman for the UA mentioned that Zach Williams and Dorian Gerald also had sacks, plus freshman JJ Hollingsworth recovered a fumble on a bad snap.
(READ NEXT: A Deep Dive on the Arkansas Football Depth Chart)
Too Many Penalties
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for the Razorbacks. Pittman said they didn’t commit many — if any — holding or pass interference penalties, but they did have five false starts, two illegal formations on punt and two kickoffs out of bounds for nine frustrating flags.
Most of the false starts were with the young guys, though, so he’s not quite ready to hit the panic button.
“Some things that we have to work on are pre-snap penalties,” Pittman said. “Those things we have to clean up, and that’s usually what happens in the first scrimmage, especially with your younger kids.”
While he’d prefer his players never commit penalties, Pittman did acknowledge that it was a good thing there were still three weeks to get the mistakes corrected before the Sept. 3 opener against Cincinnati.
“It’s the first scrimmage and that’s why you scrimmage,” Pittman said. “You try to make it as much as you can the atmosphere of a game, we’re coming off the sideline on the field and this is it. Maybe a little bit of jitters there, but I’m not overly concerned about it because it hadn’t happened at practice. It’s just we’ve got to get it fixed. It certainly gives you a point of emphasis to make.”
Young Guys Standing Out
As he typically does, Sam Pittman mentioned several names when asked about standouts among the young players. He specifically gave a shout out to linebacker Jordan Crook, offensive linemen E’Marion Harris and Patrick Kutas, and wide receivers Samuel Mbake and Quincey McAdoo.
However, it wasn’t hard to figure out which two freshmen were at the front of his mind because he brought up wide receiver Isaiah Sategna and defensive lineman Nico Davillier — both of whom were four-star recruits from the state of Arkansas.
Sategna, who went to Fayetteville High, made some nice plays in the scrimmage and Pittman said he isn’t afraid of putting him on punt return — a spot he’s competing for with Bryce Stephens and a handful of other players.
“He’s just a really good player,” Pittman said. “Sometimes if you’re not the biggest guy, you have to have special skills, and he has them. He can separate, really good hands. He doesn’t say a word now. He just comes to work everyday.”
Mentioned earlier for a specific play he made in the scrimmage, Davillier — a Maumelle High product — is a defensive linemen capable of playing both inside and outside. Considering all of the injuries at defensive tackle, he’s been at that spot lately.
“Nico Davillier made some big-time plays today as a young guy,” Pittman said. “He’s going to play for us now. There’s not gonna be no redshirt. I mean, he’s going to be on the field. He’s a good player.”
Asked how receptive he was to moving from end to tackle, Pittman smiled and said Davillier was willing to do whatever it took to get on the field. That includes playing on every special teams unit.
“You don’t find many guys that big that are that athletic at his age, and that have a motor, and he does,” Pittman said. “I’m really high on him. I think he’s going to be really good for us.”
Arkansas Football Injury Report
While most of the players who got dinged up Saturday were able to return to the scrimmage, Pittman mentioned that one exception was freshman offensive lineman Andrew Chamblee. Already working as the second-team left tackle because Devon Manuel is banged up, he went down with a shoulder injury.
The Razorbacks were also still without defensive tackles Cameron Ball and Taylor Lewis, who are believed to be dealing with concussions.
It’s also worth noting that Jalen Catalon missed his second straight day of practice, but not for injury reasons. He went home to attend his grandfather’s funeral.
Check out what Sam Pittman, KJ Jefferson and Bumper Pool said after Saturday’s scrimmage:
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