Three different true freshmen have started a game for the Razorbacks this season, but none may be as important to the Arkansas vs LSU matchup than one who’s hardly played.
Although linebacker Alex Sanford has been on the field for just 10 total snaps and likely won’t play much, if at all, Saturday night, he’s been tasked with simulating Harold Perkins Jr. on the scout team this week at practice.
“He’s the closest thing we can get to him,” head coach Sam Pittman said. “We just ask him to do whatever’s on the card, whatever Perkins does. But he’s done a really nice job. Obviously, you can’t duplicate that type of speed, but he’s done a nice job with it.”
The hope is that he can help the offense prepare enough to prevent a repeat of last year’s historic performance by the Tigers’ star pass rusher. In the Razorbacks’ 13-10 loss, Perkins tied an LSU record with four sacks — two of which were strip-sacks — and also had a pass breakup, one quarterback hurry and four other tackles.
It didn’t help that Arkansas was without starting quarterback KJ Jefferson and veteran right tackle Dalton Wagner, both of whom missed that game with injuries. Still, Perkins almost single-handedly wrecked Arkansas’ offense.
“Just unbelievably fast,” Pittman recalled during Monday’s press conference. “I went back and watched last year’s game this morning actually and I mean, he ran down Malik Hornsby several times, so I know he’s fast.”
Considering the struggles on that side of the ball through the first three weeks of the season, the Razorbacks can’t afford for that to happen again if they want to have any shot at going into Baton Rouge, La., as 17.5-point underdogs and pulling off the upset.
Shoring Up the Arkansas Football O-Line
KJ Jefferson will be available to start this year, but Arkansas football will once again be without Dalton Wagner, who is now on the Las Vegas Raiders’ injured reserve. It also won’t have last year’s starting left tackle, Luke Jones.
In their place, the Razorbacks have started a pair of second-year tackles — redshirt freshman Andrew Chamblee on the right side and sophomore Patrick Kutas on the left. They and the rest of the new-look offensive line have had a hard time establishing the run this season and last week, against BYU, the unit was exposed in pass protection.
BYU was constantly in Jefferson’s face and finished the game with four sacks, more than Arkansas had allowed in the first two games combined (3).
Sam Pittman credited the Cougars for that pressure, saying they mostly did it with a bull rush and simply beat the Razorbacks’ offensive line. That’s why, three games into the season, Arkansas is still searching for answers up front.
“Believe me, we’re trying everything that we can to try to get the best guys out there that are going to play the best,” Pittman said. “We’ve been banged up and those things, but a lot of people get banged up. We just have to play better and play more consistent.”
One potential answer could be the return of redshirt sophomore Devon Manuel, who was the projected starting left tackle before an injury late in fall camp. He split time with Chamblee the first two weeks, but is now dealing with a stinger that kept him out of the BYU game entirely.
Even though he’s practiced this week, Manuel’s status for Saturday is still up in the air. In fact, it doesn’t sound encouraging based on Pittman’s comments Wednesday afternoon.
“In my opinion, he’s yet to let it go,” Pittman said. “He’s got to let it go and get back to where he was to help us, so I don’t know if he’ll be available full speed or not. If he won’t, then we won’t play him unless he’s full speed. He’s not there as of today, so we’ll have to figure that out.”
It’s also worth noting that when Kutas and Chamblee got dinged up against BYU, redshirt freshman E’Marion Harris was the sixth offensive lineman who entered the game and not senior Ty’Kieast Crawford. Pittman said that was because Harris had been practicing better of late and surpassed him on the depth chart.
More Help in Arkansas vs LSU
Of course, pass protection doesn’t fall entirely on the offensive line. Sam Pittman said the Razorbacks are working on several things to keep KJ Jefferson upright moving forward.
They’re honing the chipping with running backs and tight ends, the latter of which might be a safer option because it can guarantee a chip, while running backs coming out of the backfield could be forced to pick up a blitz instead. Those aren’t the only solutions, though.
“I think we have to be prepared on both of those venues and, like I said before, I think we’ve got to move the pocket some, too,” Pittman said. “I think we’ve got to get out of, ‘This is where KJ is going to be,’ in different situations.
“I think that’ll help, but we do 1-on-1s, we do indy and pass pro all the time. The other thing is that we can’t hold on to the ball as long as we have. He’s holding on because we’re not getting open, so that could help as well.”
As Pittman explained, every position on offense can play a part in improving pass protection. With Harold Perkins Jr. and LSU looming, they must do exactly that because things aren’t getting any easier.
Six of the Razorbacks’ eight SEC opponents have higher pass-rush grades on Pro Football Focus than BYU’s 67.8 — none higher than the Tigers’ 75.6.
Harold Perkins Jr. in 2023
Through the first three games of LSU’s season, Harold Perkins Jr. has just 10 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and two quarterback hurries. His numbers on Pro Football Focus aren’t much more impressive, as he’s credited with only five total pressures.
That’s well off his pace from last season, when he averaged 3.2 pressures per game. Part of that is due to him playing more in coverage this year. According to PFF, Perkins has played 50 coverage snaps and 34 pass-rush snaps — compared to 163 pass-rush and 130 coverage snaps in 2022.
“They’re playing him a little bit differently and they’ve got a different defense,” Pittman said. “He hasn’t rushed as much as he had in the past, but really his plays against us he was a spy. He was a spy and when Malik broke, he went and ran him down. I don’t know if that’s what they’re going to do with KJ or not. I would assume not. I think they’re going to play their defense.”
It seems as though the distribution in his last two games has been more like last year. After playing 28 coverage snaps and seven pass-rush snaps against Florida State in the opener, he’s played 22 coverage and 27 pass-rush snaps against Grambling and Mississippi State.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Perkins went from a 39.4 PFF grade in the opener to posting marks of 77.2 and 74.9 the last two grades.
It remains to be seen how the Tigers will deploy him against KJ Jefferson on Saturday, but the Razorbacks will almost certainly need to be aware of him at all times.
“He’s a really great athlete,” tight end Luke Hasz said. “Watching him on film, he’s fast, he’s physical and he’s all over the field. So it will definitely be exciting to go against someone of his caliber.”
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