Unofficial Red-White Game MVP One Reason for Arkansas’ Latest 2 Transfers

Jacolby Criswell, Isaiah Augustave, Arkansas football, transfer portal, Red-White game
photo credit: Craven Whitlow

FAYETTEVILLE — The transfer portal officially opens Tuesday and two Arkansas football players are already known to be on the way out. The decisions by Isaiah Augustave and Jacolby Criswell should not come as a surprise, though.

First, let’s look at the situation for Augustave. The talented running back flashed his potential late last season, but the addition of a couple of newcomers this offseason — and their strong spring showings — meant he’d likely be down on the depth chart again in 2024.

Utah transfer Ja’Quinden Jackson and returner Rashod Dubinion had separated themselves as the top two running backs on the team and took the first-team reps in the annual Red-White spring game. They showed out, combining for 106 yards on just 12 carries.

No MVP award was handed out Saturday, but the star of the day was Jackson. Not only did he run for 68 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries, but he also had a 15-yard score on a dump off pass from Taylen Green. Listed at 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, he is a very physical runner who broke numerous tackles during the scrimmage.

“He’s a guy that’s probably even better when it’s live,” Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman said. “He looks better because he bounces off people. He uses the stiff arm a little bit more. He’s got a violent stiff arm. He always seems to be moving forward. When he gets hit hard, he grins and gets up. He’s just a tough kid.”

On top of being behind those two running backs, Augustave was also fighting for reps with heralded freshman Braylen Russell. Neither of them did much against the first-team defense in the Red-White Game, but Russell had an impressive 32-yard touchdown run against the third-teamers in the second half.

There have been some ball-security issues throughout the spring with Russell, but that could just be a matter of chemistry with the quarterbacks at the mesh point. If he gets that solidified, the Benton product will play as a true freshman. If you don’t believe us, take it from the head coach.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll help us this fall,” Pittman said.

Assuming Russell contributes like Pittman seems to believe he will, simple math tells you there wouldn’t be too many reps left for Augustave. Throw in the fact that his position coach, Jimmy Smith, has left the team and it’s really not a shock that he’s leaving.

It may be a bummer to lose someone that talented, but as long as everyone else — including Dominique Johnson — sticks around, the Razorbacks should be more than fine at running back.

Here are a few other key takeaways from the spring game and the spring as a whole, as 13 of the 15 practices were open to the media…

QB Battle Remains, But Not for QB1

Entering the spring, it was widely believed the Razorbacks would have a legitimate quarterback battle with Boise State transfer Taylen Green and last year’s backup, Jacolby Criswell, as the top two candidates.

That’s not how it all played out, though. Green asserted himself as the starter before spring ball even began and then confirmed it throughout the 15 practices. There were some rough stretches, but the redshirt junior was by far the most consistent and best quarterback on the roster.

Granted it was all against the second-team defense, but he proved that again in the Red-White game by completing 17 of 22 passes for 243 yards and three touchdowns – and that’s not even factoring in his running ability.

“I thought he showed a lot of poise today,” Pittman said. “Obviously that he’s a great leader and the kids playing around him believe in him.”

The competition is now for the backup role and it was a three-man race until reports emerged on Monday that Criswell would enter the transfer portal. Much like Augustave, this isn’t particularly surprising news considering where he was trending on the depth chart and his struggles in new offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino’s system.

That leaves a pair of quarterbacks who’ve yet to appear in a college game – redshirt freshman Malachi Singleton and true freshman KJ Jackson.

Singleton has probably received the most second-team reps and is probably the leader based on his performance in the spring as a whole, but Jackson looked the best on Saturday. He actually moved the ball some against the first-team defense and, even though he had a bad interception, he had the best numbers.

The competition will continue into fall camp, but it would not be surprising at all to see Jackson push for that role.

“Obviously Taylen Green is our quarterback, but after that I think it’s a wide open race,” Pittman said. “I’m not saying any of them can’t go get Taylen. I’m not saying that. I believe he’ll work hard to keep his position. But between the four of them, I think we still have to wait and see on two, three and four.”

Arkansas Football Transfers Bolster First-Team OL

No position was more disappointing last year than the offensive line. What was once a strength of the team suddenly became a major weakness.

It’s clear Sam Pittman felt the same way, as the unit underwent a massive overhaul this offseason. Offensive line coach Cody Kennedy left and was replaced with Eric Mateos, another Pittman disciple. Beaux Limmer, Brady Latham, Devon Manuel and Andrew Chamblee are also gone.

To fill the void, the Razorbacks hit the transfer portal hard and landed a trio of offensive linemen – and all three are slated to be starters. Addison Nichols (Tennessee) at center, Fernando Carmona Jr. (San Jose State) at left tackle and Keyshawn Blackstock (Michigan State) at right tackle have seemingly solidified that unit.

Again, it was against the second-team defense, but that unit opened up holes for the aforementioned running backs and also protected Taylen Green. Even when the Razorbacks have scrimmaged with the 1s against the 1s, they’ve been able to run the ball well.

“I think Eric’s done a great job with those guys, but you have to give them credit,” Pittman said. “Getting Junior Carmona in here, Blackstock and Nichols, they have a different way about them.”

Youngsters Look Ready to Help at Linebacker

There were a lot of additions on the offensive line, but the position that experienced the most turnover was on the other side of the ball. The linebacker room lost arguably its top four players last year and returned very little experience.

Arkansas addressed that some by bringing in former five-star recruit Xavian Sorey Jr. from Georgia via the transfer portal and he, like Taylen Green, asserted himself as a starter from the jump.

The biggest question has been who will start alongside him on the Razorbacks’ defense. The Razorbacks have rotated several different guys on the first-team unit, but Brad Spence probably flashed the most – both throughout the spring and in the Red-White game. That makes sense, too, because he played the most as a true freshman.

“Brad last year made some plays, didn’t make some plays — he was a freshman,” Pittman said. “He’s going to continue to make more plays, and not make some, we’re all human. But I think his growth this spring has been quite a bit.”

Fellow second-year linebackers Alex Sanford and Carson Dean had their moments, too, and appear to be ready to take on larger roles in 2024. In fact, Pittman singled them out as one of the biggest surprises of the spring.

Arkansas Football Needs More Depth at Key Positions

Talking to reporters following the Red-White game, Sam Pittman said the Razorbacks had five scholarships open. The departures of Isaiah Augustave and Jacolby Criswell would seemingly increase that number to seven.

That might be a good thing because one of the most noticeable issues with the Arkansas football team this spring was its lack of depth. Many of the starters appear to be legitimate SEC players, but there is a definite dropoff between them and their backups.

Pittman didn’t come out and say it like that, but he acknowledged the lack of depth when he singled out a few positions he and his staff would be targeting during this round of the transfer portal.

Cam Ball looks like he’s ready for a breakout year and the Razorbacks also have Eric Gregory and Keivie Rose as experienced defensive tackle, plus they’re high on redshirt freshman Ian Geffrard, but that’s about it. Arkansas needs more interior defensive linemen, for sure, and possibly even another defensive end because their third-string guys at that spot are true freshmen Charlie Collins and Kavion Henderson – heralded players, but freshmen, nonetheless.

The same is true on the other side of the trenches. There’s a reason our above section about the offensive line specifically mentions the “first team” – the depth isn’t there. One injury could be devastating, especially on the interior.

Tyrone Broden and Andrew Armstrong have separated themselves as the clear top two targets for Taylen Green, with Isaiah Sategna probably third on that list when it comes to wide receivers, but Arkansas doesn’t have a ton after them. Jaedon Wilson has been banged up, but could be a rotational piece, as well as returning starter Isaac TeSlaa.

Freshman CJ Brown impressed the coaching staff this spring, with Pittman even admitting the Bentonville product is better than expected, but it’d be nice if the Razorbacks had another guy or two to count on.

Finally, even with the aforementioned youngsters coming on strong at linebacker, Arkansas could use another older guy at that position because right now, it’s pretty much just Sorey and a bunch of first- and second-year players.

“I’m not saying we need that because we don’t have players at those positions, because I think we all believe that we do,” Pittman said. “It’s just a matter of age, depth, all of those things that go into that.”

The Good and Bad on Special Teams

Cam Little’s decision to declare for the NFL Draft following last season caught the coaching staff by surprise. Special teams coordinator Scott Fountain admitted as much this spring.

However, they recovered nicely by landing one of the better kickers in the transfer portal: Matthew Shipley from Hawaii. He looked pretty good early on in spring ball, but proved to be very inconsistent. He’d have days where he went 4 for 4 and others when he’d go 1 for 4.

Typically, he and Vito Calvaruso switched off – when he was bad, Shipley was good, and vice versa. On Saturday, though, they both struggled.

“We have to be more consistent,” Pittman said. “We haven’t performed well in the stadium. We have performed well in the indoor or on the practice field. … We’ve got to continue to get them in here and make sure they make them inside the stadium because that’s where it’s going to count.”

If the Razorbacks are going to improve on their 4-8 record next season, they’re likely going to need to win some close games – which means it could come down to a field goal. Right now, it’d be hard to feel good about that situation, especially compared to the last three years with Little.

On the flip side, it seems like Arkansas might have two legitimate SEC punters in returning starter Max Fletcher and second-year transfer Devin Bale.

Fletcher was graded as one of the best punters in the country by Pro Football Focus last year and showed significant improvements from his freshman year, but Bale seemed to really push him this spring. In fact, Bale had the better day in the spring game, booting a couple of punts 60-plus yards in the air – albeit with the wind at his back.

It would be hard to imagine Fletcher not beginning the year as the starter, but if he doesn’t perform consistently, Arkansas has a good second option to turn to.

Arkansas Football Press Conference

Watch Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman’s full press conference following Saturday’s Red-White game…

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