One-third of the Arkansas football seniors eligible for a bonus year are taking advantage of it and will play for the Razorbacks in 2023.
It was already known that quarterback Cade Fortin, who was recently placed on scholarship, would be back, but a UA spokesperson confirmed last week that tight end Nathan Bax, defensive back LaDarrius Bishop and defensive end Zach Williams would also return.
The 2023 season will mark the third straight year teams across college football will have players who would have otherwise exhausted their eligibility, but are still playing because of the relief granted by the NCAA in response to the pandemic. All players active in 2020 can get that extra year.
By the end of last season, the Razorbacks had 12 such players that fell into that category, so eight opted not to return. Of that group, star center Ricky Stromberg declared for the NFL Draft, starting left tackle Luke Jones chose to move on from football and the other six entered the transfer portal.
Most notably, tight end Trey Knox followed Dowell Loggains to South Carolina and defensive end Jordan Domineck changed his mind about returning and ended up at Colorado instead. Two others — safety Simeon Blair and punter Reid Bauer — landed at Memphis, defensive tackle Isaiah Nichols transferred to Purdue and defensive back Trent Gordon has yet to find a new home.
With a couple weeks left in the season, Best of Arkansas Sports ranked those 12 seniors by how desirable they’d be as super seniors and the four who will play for the Razorbacks next season were ranked No. 6, 7, 8 and 11.
Nathan Bax Resume
Before the Razorbacks landed big defensive tackle John Ridgeway as a coveted FCS-to-FBS transfer, they brought in a walk-on tight end from Illinois State. The addition of Nathan Bax flew so under the radar that he wasn’t even listed on the Arkansas football roster in 2019, his first year in Fayetteville.
He redshirted during his lone season with the Redbirds before deciding to try his hand in the SEC without the promise of a scholarship and — with a few years of hard work — it paid off.
After contributing mostly on special teams for much of his career, Bax was the Razorbacks’ No. 2 tight end for nearly all of 2022. Despite missing a couple of games with an injury as a fifth-year senior, he played 210 snaps this season. That includes getting the start in the bowl game thanks to starter Trey Knox transferring out.
Although he isn’t much of a threat in the passing game, catching only three passes for 16 yards, Bax developed a reputation for being a solid blocker.
Many expect Arkansas’ young group of talented tight ends — Ty Washington, Luke Hasz and Shamar Easter — to take over the position, but getting Bax back as a sixth-year senior will provide the room with a much-needed veteran presence that it seemed to be missing with Knox transferring, Hudson Henry moving on and Collin Sutherland medically retiring.
Even with his return, the Razorbacks would still like to fill one of their final nine spots with another “older” tight end from the transfer portal, Sam Pittman said, as they’re currently projected to have only four on scholarship in 2023.
Arkansas actually hosted a couple during the first week of January, but Jake Roberts from North Texas committed to Baylor and Cane Berrong from Notre Dame landed at Coastal Carolina. At this point, any new tight end the Razorbacks bring in would have to join the team this summer, meaning he won’t be able to go through spring ball.
LaDarrius Bishop Resume
A four-star recruit coming out of Ashdown, LaDarrius Bishop originally committed to Mississippi State because he wasn’t pursued very hard by the Razorbacks. That changed when Chad Morris took over and a strong push led to him flipping.
After playing only a handful of snaps as a true freshman, he carved out a role for himself on both defense and special teams as a redshirt freshman and has been a contributor ever since.
Bishop actually started three games at cornerback in 2019 and then was the backup nickel for much of 2020 before starting the finale against Alabama at cornerback. He did well enough in that game that he stuck at corner and split time with Hudson Clark in 2021, starting nine games.
However, heading into this past season, Bishop was a clear backup behind starting corners Dwight McGlothern and Clark. He got seven snaps in the opener against Cincinnati, but was beat deep twice in the span of three plays — the latter of which resulted in a touchdown. He played a little better the following week against South Carolina, but ended up tearing his ACL in the game and missing the rest of the year.
Despite his struggles in 2022, both in his limited game action and in fall camp, Bishop has 13 career starts and nearly 1,000 career defensive snaps under his belt. It can’t be understated how important it is to get someone with that kind of experience back in a new-look secondary.
The Razorbacks had 10 defensive backs — including Jalen Catalon, Simeon Blair, Myles Slusher and Khari Johnson — transfer out and Latavious Brini exhausted his eligibility. All together, they must replace 45.1% of their total snaps in the secondary. Plus, the unit will have two new supervising new coaches in Marcus Woodson and Deron Wilson.
Considering Arkansas had the worst pass defense in the country in 2022, giving up 294.7 yards through the air, that might be a good thing, but it’s still good to have an experienced guy like Bishop in the room — even if he doesn’t start.
Injuries, as they did last season, could force other players into action. Even if something were to happen to McGlothern or Quincey McAdoo, the returning starters, the Razorbacks now have both Bishop and Baylor transfer Lorando Johnson as potential backup cornerbacks.
Zach Williams More Disruptive Than Many Fans Realize
The son of a former All-SWC linebacker for the Razorbacks, Zach Williams was a legacy recruit coming out of Joe T. Robinson in Little Rock. Not surprisingly, he chose to follow in the footsteps of his father — Rickey Williams — and play for Arkansas football.
Despite being slightly undersized, Williams got steady playing time as a backup during his freshman year. His reps increased the following season and have been pretty steady ever since.
This past season, Williams actually started the first six games before dropping down to the second unit. However, he still got consistent playing time even off the bench. The result was easily his best and most productive season yet.
After posting Pro Football focus grades of 50.7 on 305 snaps in 2020 and 62.9 on 276 snaps in 2021, Williams earned a solid 70.8 PFF grade on 448 snaps this year. He was officially credited with 34 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and 6 quarterback hurries, but PFF had him with 26 total pressures — second only to Drew Sanders, who had 39 on nearly twice as many snaps.
Even though the Razorbacks added a pair of pass-rushing defensive ends — John Morgan III from Pittsburgh and Trajan Jeffcoat from Missouri — via the transfer portal, getting a player with Williams’ experience (1,160 career snaps) back for another year is a boost to the defensive line. His return was made even more important with the departure of Jordan Domineck.
Between Williams, Morgan, Jeffcoat, Landon Jackson, Jashaud Stewart and Eric Gregory (who could also shift inside in a four-man front), Arkansas has six defensive ends who have combined for more than 6,200 career defensive snaps at the Power Five level, with each playing more than 400.
Considering new defensive coordinator Travis Williams is expected to deploy more four-man fronts and get after the quarterback more than the Razorbacks have in recent years, having a steady rotation at that position will be a key to their success in 2023.
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