Who Will Emerge as Arkansas Football’s Top Backups Behind Trelon Smith and KJ Jefferson?

Trelon Smith

FAYETTEVILLE – While football fans frequently chant “Who’s No. 1?,” Sam Pittman ponders “Who’s No. 2?”

And even “Who’s No. 3?”

This is particularly so as the Arkansas football head coach ponders personnel at quarterback and running back.

The No. 2, and even No. 3, at those positions could become as important as who starts No. 1 with the season opening Sept. 4 against the Rice Owls at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. 

Starter KJ Jefferson has already personally underscored the importance of a backup quarterback. He delivered solid performances off the bench against Mississippi State in 2019 and a spectacular start in place of injured since turned pro starter Feleipe Franks in last season’s 50-48 shootout loss at Missouri, .

Now it’s third-year sophomore Jefferson’s show to run No. 1.

Quarterback Situation for Arkansas Football

But what if he’s injured, like Franks prior to last year’s Missouri game or the 2-10 nightmare of 2019 when injuries and ineffectiveness prompted the Chad Morris regime to start five different quarterbacks?

Returning from 2020 are Jefferson, logging one start in 2019 but able to redshirt as a true freshman who played just three games and five games last year. There’s also fourth-year junior John Stephen Jones, who had one start in 2019 but wasn’t used last season, and redshirt freshman Malik Hornsby.

Hornsby surpassed Jones as last season’s nominal No. 3 behind Franks and Jefferson. He was used nominally, just one game for two ineffectual goal-line runs against Auburn.

He closed spring practice No. 2 and opens August drills No. 2 while Pittman and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles sort among Jones, walk-on transfer Kade Renfro via Ole Miss and Stephenville, Texas, and true freshmen Lucas Coley of San Antonio and Landon Rogers of Little Rock Parkview.

Despite official Arkansas football Tweets to the contrary, you shouldn’t expect to 6’4″, 310 pound Ricky Stromberg to make a position change off the offensive line any time soon:

Lucas Coley graduated high school in December and participated in Razorbacks spring drills.

Rogers graduated from Parkview in May and reported to the UA in the summer.

 “I think there’s a battle there,” Pittman said. “Obviously KJ Jefferson is 1 going into fall camp. Then after that, I think obviously Malik Hornsby is sitting right there at two.”

Obviously off past experience plus spring drills performance, Jefferson seems a far more entrenched No. 1 than Hornsby an entrenched No. 2.

However Pittman wants to gauge early on who among the contingent competing for No. 3 is best equipped to challenge Hornsby for No. 2.

“Obviously they’re all going to compete,” Pittman said.  “We have to make sure who our 3 is before we decide whether they’re going to compete at that level for the 2-spot.”

“So we’re doing reps accordingly to that. You’ve got several guys right in there with Renfro and Coley and John Stephen Jones. We’ve got to find who is our solid 3 first, and then we’ll let them go attack the 2 spot as well.”

Watch the backup Arkansas football quarterbacks taking reps at 2:40 below:

Who Will Back Up Trelon Smith at Running Back?

Arizona State transfer Trelon Smith began last season No. 2 running back behind 2019 1,000-yard rushing Preseason All-American Rakeem Boyd.

With Boyd injured early and eventually opting out, Smith closed as the unquestioned No. 1. He led Arkansas rushers with 134 carries for 710 yards and five touchdowns, three against Missouri.

Though only 5-9, 190, Smith head and shoulders opens August drills as the No. 1 back.

However. running back is customarily most afflicted by injury attrition. And even the great ones fortunate to prove durable can’t play down after down. 

The No. 2 running back is so vital that Pittman predicted that Arkansas’ most impactful surprise player of 2021 could be its heretofore undeclared backup ballcarrier.

“We have to find a No. 2 running back,” Pittman said.  “Whomever that is, I think we’ll talk a lot about him.”

Candidates include sixth-senior T.J. Hammonds, with a talented but inconsistent past as a running back-receiver,  Razorbacks track sprinter Josh Oglesby, out the entire 2020 football season with a preseason injury but returning both for football practice and to run track for Coach Chris Bucknam’s Razorbacks last spring, sophomore mostly special teams letterman Dominique Johnson and true freshman A.J. Green, whom Otis Kirk compared to a cross between D-Mac and Felix Jones.

Green reported in the summer after graduating from Union High in Tulsa. Also look for freshman Javion Hunt of Oklahoma City and Raheim “Rocket”  Sanders, a December high graduate recruited as a receiver but moved to running back last spring.

All bring various attributes: size for Johnson (6-1, 235), track speed for Oglesby; size and receivers speed for Sanders (6-2, 225); speed, receivers hands and a lot of experience for Hammonds, and glittering prep credentials for Green and Hunt.

However, all must do more than just run the ball and catch passes.

Many a talented young back at many a school has satin the bench because his coach knew the quarterback might be clobbered and carted off the field because the running back didn’t block or missed an assignment.

Other than Smith and Hammonds, it’s basically rookies asked to protect a first-timer for the season starting quarterback with no proven depth behind him.

That’s a monumental task awaiting Jimmy Smith, the Arkansas football running backs coach.

Especially since the Razorbacks need others than just Smith running the ball and running it well in critical short yardage situations.

“Certainly our backs have to break more tackles,” Pittman said. “We’re going to have a big emphasis on third-and-short throughout the camp and we’re going to have a big emphasis on being able to run the football, as in, you have to take a read away for the quarterback where he can throw it, but as in we’re going to run the football, the defense knows we’re going to run the football.”

See the latest from Arkansas football practice here:

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