Ranking Arkansas’ 12 Most Desirable Super Seniors for Next Season

AARP, Here They Come

Simeon Blair, Zach Williams, Arkansas football
photo credit: Nick Wenger

FAYETTEVILLE — Saturday will mark the final home game of the 2022 season for Arkansas football, meaning it is the team’s annual Senior Night.

There are 20 players set to be honored before the Razorbacks’ matchup with No. 14 Ole Miss, ranging from those who’ve been in the program for as many six years to as few as six months.

The transfer portal gets the most attention as the reason behind those varying time lengths, as nearly half of the Arkansas players walking on Senior Night began their collegiate careers elsewhere.

However, another major factor has been the blanket eligibility relief granted by the NCAA to all players active in 2020, the season most impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. That has given players like Blake Kern and Grant Morgan last year and Bumper Pool and Dalton Wagner this year an opportunity to play an extra season they otherwise wouldn’t have had.

Included on the list of Saturday night’s honorees are 10 players who are technically eligible to return in 2023 as super seniors — and head coach Sam Pittman intends to bring some of them back.

“Well, the COVID deal kind of allows that to happen nowadays in that class, but there are several of them that I’m going to talk to and see if we can get them to do it twice,” Pittman said. “It’s not the time to talk to them now until the season is over, but certainly I don’t think there’s any rule you can’t walk twice on Senior Night.”

For the second straight year, those who use the extra year of eligibility will count toward Arkansas’ 85-man scholarship limit in 2023. That’s different than last year, when Morgan, Kern and many others were essentially freebies, pushing the Razorbacks well over the typical scholarship limit.

In 2021, Pittman was able to welcome back non-contributors like Deon Edwards and T.J. Hammonds with open arms because they wouldn’t be taking up a scholarship spot. That wasn’t the case this year and won’t be from here on out, so the third-year coach must be more selective. In fact, he’s previously said there will be “somewhere around 6-8 that we would ask to come back.”

By Best of Arkansas Sports’ count, there are 11 scholarship players listed as seniors on the roster who would be eligible to return as super seniors next season. Throw in quarterback Cade Fortin, a walk-on who was on scholarship at his previous two FBS schools, and there are 12 notable players facing that decision this offseason.

On the eve of Senior Night and with only two games remaining, we felt like it would be a good idea to rank those 12 players in order of importance for the Arkansas football program. Essentially, the only criterion for this list is the potential impact the particular player would have by choosing to return as a super senior.

(NOTE: This list does not include non-seniors facing an NFL Draft decision, such as quarterback KJ Jefferson, safety Jalen Catalon and others. It also doesn’t factor in the non-seniors who’ve already obtained their degree and chose to be honored Saturday, such as redshirt junior tight end Hudson Henry.)

12. DB Trent Gordon

A former four-star recruit who began his career at Penn State, Trent Gordon was widely projected to be an immediate contributor in Arkansas’ secondary when he transferred in following the 2020 season. Unfortunately, injuries hindered him throughout his first season in Fayetteville.

Now healthy, he seems to be buried on the depth chart. Gordon has been listed as a backup nickel back on the depth chart at times this season, but is now listed third behind Myles Slusher and Jayden Johnson. Even when they’ve been banged up, he’s had a hard time getting on the field. In fact, it took six defensive backs going down with injuries before Gordon got his first significant playing time.

If he was struggling to crack into the rotation on this secondary, which is 120th nationally in pass defense (280.5 ypg), it might be in Gordon’s best interests to pursue his final year of eligibility elsewhere.

Prediction: moves on

11. TE Nathan Bax

Originally a walk-on when he transferred in from Illinois State for the 2019 season, Nathan Bax drew some early praise from former tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr., carved out a special teams role in 2020, saw some offensive action last year and — when healthy — has been the Razorbacks’ backup tight end this season. He earned a scholarship along the way.

Bax, who has caught two passes for five yards this season, has been a great story and he’s certainly worked extremely hard to get the playing time he’s received during his time in Fayetteville, but the tight end room is about to get a large influx of talent. Arkansas has a trio of four-star tight ends committed in the 2023 class and all three could make an immediate impact.

He could come back and try to have a super senior season like what Blake Kern enjoyed in 2021, but with Shamar Easter, Luke Hasz and Jaden Hamm coming in and Tyrus Washington being a year older, he’d have far more competition at the position than Kern did last year. Plus, Bax has earned numerous academic accolades in high school and landed on the SEC Fall Honor Roll each of the last two years. With such obvious intellectual gifts, he could be ready to begin life after football.

Prediction: moves on

10. P Reid Bauer

For four straight years, Arkansas has seemingly tried running off Reid Bauer. For four straight years, he’s stuck around and in all but one season, he ultimately won the starting job.

As a true freshman in 2018, he won the job over returning scholarship punter Blake Johnson. The Razorbacks brought in Sam Loy from Colorado, who beat him out in 2019, and then George Caratan from Michigan, but Bauer ultimately emerged as the starter over both of them in 2020. Last year, he beat out Loy again and earned a scholarship. This year, Arkansas signed a heralded punter from Australia in Max Fletcher.

Fletcher won the starting job and kept it for five games before his struggles finally forced the coaches to give Bauer another shot. He’d held that role ever since and had some booming punts, but he’s struggled with consistency of late and was actually replaced by Fletcher for the final punt of the LSU game.

It’s worth noting that Bauer’s current 45.2-yard average this season would rank fifth in UA history, but he won’t reach the minimum attempt threshold required to crack the list, and his career 42.0-yard average ranks seventh in school history. Still, it’s hard to see Arkansas carrying two scholarship punters for a second straight season and Fletcher is likely viewed as the future at the position.

Prediction: moves on

9. S Simeon Blair

This is where things get tricky. On one hand, Simeon Blair is a team captain and one of five defensive players to start every game this season. Playing safety, he’s third on the team in both tackles (55) and pass breakups (4). He’s also played more snaps than any other Arkansas defender, according to Pro Football Focus.

All of those things would seem to indicate Blair is worthy of being ranked higher on this list. However, it’s no secret that the former walk-on has struggled this year. His 50.4 PFF grade ranks 110th out of 114 SEC defensive backs who’ve played at least 120 snaps. If that threshold is increased to 550 snaps, essentially meaning only full-time starters, he ranks dead last out of 29. PFF also credits him with five touchdowns allowed, which is tied with Vanderbilt’s Jeremy Lucien for the most in the conference.

That said, Pittman is very fond of Blair and values what he brings to the team from a leadership standpoint. At one point before the season, he even told reporters, “You’d like to have a whole bunch of Blairs on your team.” The Razorbacks probably hope someone can beat him out next year, but as long as he wants to, Pittman would almost certainly welcome him back with open arms.

Prediction: returns as a super senior

8. QB Cade Fortin

The injuries to KJ Jefferson this season have illustrated the serious depth problem Arkansas has behind its star quarterback. The Razorbacks didn’t sign one in 2022 and neither of their 2021 signees are still quarterbacks at Arkansas, as Lucas Coley transferred to Houston and Landon Rogers changed positions.

All of that left Pittman with only two scholarship quarterbacks for this season and one of them, Malik Hornsby, has already flirted with the transfer portal once. Arkansas does have a pair of walk-on transfers who were previously on scholarship at Power Five schools, but one of them, Kade Renfro, has torn his ACL twice in the past year. The other is Fortin, who has actually gotten some significant playing time this year.

Pittman has talked about Fortin being a two-year guy and the coaching staff seems to love him. However, it probably wouldn’t be a good sign for Arkansas if he is the No. 2 quarterback in 2023 — assuming Jefferson returns. Having his veteran presence in the room should be beneficial to incoming four-star freshman Malachi Singleton, as long as Gus Malzahn doesn’t poach him away at the last second.

Prediction: returns as a super senior

7. DB LaDarrius Bishop

Generally thrown in as the “other” defensive back who suffered a season-ending injury early in the year, along with preseason All-American safety Jalen Catalon, LaDarrius Bishop hasn’t played since Week 2. Even before he got hurt, though, it appeared he was going to be a backup this season.

In the mix for a starting cornerback job throughout fall camp, Bishop lost out to Dwight McGlothern and Hudson Clark, while appearing to be behind Malik Chavis as well. However, he does have a lot of experience with the Razorbacks, starting nine games in 2021 and playing nearly 1,000 career defensive snaps.

Bishop struggled in his limited reps this year, but has shown flashes of talent and could likely help somewhere in the secondary — he played nickel in 2020 — next season. Pittman has already said he’d like to have him back and that seems like the most likely move.

Prediction: returns as a super senior

6. DE Zach Williams

A strong case could likely be made for Zach Williams to be higher on this list. He’s been a contributor on the Razorbacks’ defensive line since he was a true freshman in 2019 and started the first six games of this season.

According to Pro Football Focus, Williams has steadily improved throughout his career and has generated 20 pressures this year, which is second only to Drew Sanders. That has resulted in a solid 69.5 PFF grade. Officially, he has 5.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and five quarterback hurries.

However, over the last few weeks, he seems to have been surpassed by Eric Gregory, Jashaud Stewart and Landon Jackson in terms of defensive end reps. Barring transfers, all three of those guys will be back in 2023. Still, Williams is an in-state kid and Arkansas legacy. Playing for the Razorbacks means something to him and it wouldn’t be surprising if he comes back for a fifth season.

Prediction: returns as a super senior

5. DT Isaiah Nichols

From a productivity standpoint, Isaiah Nichols hasn’t been a huge contributor. Despite starting every game and playing more than any other interior defensive lineman, he has only 12 tackles and one pass breakup. His numbers on Pro Football Focus aren’t much better, as he’s credited with only five pressures and has a 54.5 PFF grade.

The reason Nichols is as high as he is on this list is because he’s started all 10 games and is viewed as a leader on the defensive line. What separates him from someone like Blair is the position he plays. The Razorbacks don’t exactly have a a ton of depth at defensive tackle. Terry Hampton is moving on, leaving just Cam Ball and Taurean Carter (who hasn’t played this season because of a knee injury) as experienced players set to return in 2023.

Arkansas will almost certainly hit up the portal for help and former four-star recruit Nico Davillier could take on a larger role in his second season with the team, but getting someone as experienced as Nichols back would probably be a plus for Pittman. Throw in the fact that he’s an Arkansas native and it seems like he’d be a prime candidate to be a sixth-year super senior.

Prediction: returns as a super senior

4. TE Trey Knox

Thanks to the transfer portal, stories like Trey Knox are becoming almost extinct. A highly touted four-star wide receiver, Knox signed with Arkansas and burst onto the scene as a true freshman. Instead of transferring when his head coach was fired, he struck around.

Even when his position coach left and his playing time dwindled, Knox stayed at Arkansas. He also volunteered to move to tight end last season — something most heralded receivers probably wouldn’t do. Now much bigger, Knox has been the Razorbacks’ starting tight end all season and leads the team with five touchdown receptions.

There has been talk about him having an NFL future, but it’s been a bit of an up-and-down season for Knox. Although he’s found the end zone five times, he’s also struggled with drops. In fact, two of KJ Jefferson’s three interceptions have gone off Knox’s hands (although Knox essentially denies one of those incidents). Blocking has also been a challenge, at times, but not for a lack of effort.

Another year as a tight end at his current weight might be beneficial for Knox, plus the Razorbacks could use someone with his leadership in what is shaping up to be a really young tight end room in 2023, but it would also be totally understandable if he’s ready — after everything he’s been through over the last four years — to give the NFL a shot, even if he’s not a lock to be drafted. What he ultimately decides to do is too tough to call.

Prediction: toss-up

3. LT Luke Jones

It feels like Luke Jones has been on the team a lot longer than he has. That’s probably because he originally committed when Bret Bielema was the head coach before ultimately flipping to Notre Dame. He transferred back home after just one year and then had to sit out in 2019, when it was widely expected he’d have an opportunity to get significant reps.

During the first two years of Sam Pittman’s tenure, Jones bided his time and finally got his chance thanks to the departure of Myron Cunningham. He stepped in at left tackle and has filled in nicely, playing arguably better than his predecessor. Pro Football Focus gives him a 73.1 grade, which is higher than Cunningham’s 70.6.

Also according to PFF, Jones has allowed only two sacks. Regardless of who the quarterback is next year, having a returning left tackle would be huge for Arkansas. It’d give young guys like Devon Manuel and Andrew Chamblee another year to develop. Like it’s been mentioned with several others, Jones is an in-state product who would probably enjoy a second season as a starter with the Razorbacks.

Prediction: returns as a super senior

2. DE Jordan Domineck

Most of the attention last offseason centered around Arkansas’ addition of two former five-stars — wide receiver Jadon Haselwood from Oklahoma and linebacker Drew Sanders from Alabama — but Jordan Domineck was an under-the-radar transfer who’s also proven to be a big pickup.

Even though he’s not a starter or every-down player, Domineck has been a key part of the Razorbacks’ vastly improved pass rush. With two games remaining, he’s sitting at 6.5 sacks, which means he’s on the verge of joining Sanders on the UA single-season top-10 list. He’s also forced two fumbles and, even though he doesn’t get credit for it, helped Arkansas notch its first safety since 2015.

Getting a pass rusher like Domineck back would be huge for the Razorbacks, but he might decide to begin his NFL career similar to John Ridgeway did last year. While it wouldn’t be a total shock if he returns, an extra year in college might not necessarily improve his draft stock significantly enough to make it worth it, so it might just boil down to his own personal goals.

Prediction: leaves for NFL Draft

1. C Ricky Stromberg

This was probably the easiest selection. Ricky Stromberg is one of the best centers in the SEC, if not the country. He has started 23 straight games and 42 of 45 total games since stepping foot on campus in 2019, even when he was a 266-pound true freshman.

According to Pro Football Focus, he is the Razorbacks’ third-best offensive player this season with an 81.2 grade, behind only KJ Jefferson and Rocket Sanders. That also ranks fourth nationally. He’s allowed only nine total pressures on 352 pass-blocking snaps, as well, and none of those were sacks or quarterback hits.

Especially considering how much Sam Pittman values the center position, getting Stromberg back in 2023 would be equivalent to landing a five-star recruit. However, getting him back this year was also like landing a five-star recruit, as he could have declared for the NFL Draft as a junior. That seems like an inevitability this year.

Prediction: leaves for NFL Draft


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