Earlier this week, Best of Arkansas Sports began a countdown of the 10 most surprising individual player developments over the past decade.
We touched on a benchwarmer who suddenly became an NFL Draft pick, a baseball player who briefly turned into Babe Ruth and several other incredible turnarounds.
However, those were just No. 6-10. Now it’s time for the top five, which were even more remarkable than those stories…
5. “Fat Kid” to SEC Player of the Year
Mason Jones grew up in the shadow of two older siblings who were McDonald’s All-Americans, with brother Matt going on to win a national title at Duke and sister Jordan becoming a two-time SEC Defensive Player of the Year at Texas A&M.
He actually quit basketball briefly in high school, when he was a self-described “fat kid shooting 3s,” but picked it back up and had good numbers his senior year. However, despite his great bloodlines, no scholarship offers came his way.
Stephen F. Austin offered him a walk-on opportunity, but he chose to take a prep year at Link Year before going the JUCO route at Connors State. It was there that he finally picked up a Division I offer — from UCA. He was committed to the Bears until he happened to get noticed by Arkansas assistant T.J. Cleveland.
The Razorbacks needed to replace C.J. Jones and Darious Hall, who transferred out following the 2017-18 season, and they managed to flip Jones. Considering he was a zero-star recruit, Mason Jones’ late addition wasn’t met with much fanfare.
However, it proved to be a huge pickup for the Razorbacks. Jones ended up starting 26 of 34 games his first year in Fayetteville and averaged 13.6 points while shooting 36.5% from beyond the arc, far exceeding most expectations.
What lands him on this list, though, is what happened the following year. With Mike Anderson gone and Eric Musselman at the helm, Jones took his game to another level. He led the SEC in scoring at 22.0 points per game, plus led the Razorbacks in rebounds (5.5), assists (3.4) and steals (1.6) — becoming only the second player in school history, joining Sidney Moncrief, to lead the team in all four categories.
Jones’ 22.0 points per game also rank seventh on the UA single-season list and were the most by an Arkansas player since Todd Day averaged 22.7 points in 1991-92. That performance earned him an honorable mention All-America nod from the AP, which also voted him a co-Player of the Year in the SEC.
Rather than return for his senior year, Jones declared for the NBA Draft, but was not selected. He’s since had short stints with the Rockets, 76ers and Lakers, and has torn it up in the G-League. After earning first-team All-G-League honors last year, he’s now playing for the Mexico City team and averaging 20.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.1 steals in 36.8 minutes.
4. Don’t Doubt the Morgan Brothers
Similar to Mason Jones, Drew Morgan seemed destined to play for one of the smaller Division I schools in the state. As a two-star recruit coming out of Greenwood High, he committed to Arkansas State — only for the Razorbacks to swoop in at the last second with an offer to join their 2013 signing class, the first under new head coach Bret Bielema.
Morgan jumped at the opportunity and, instead of redshirting, he found his way on the field as a true freshman — mostly on special teams. He played a little bit more as a receiver in 2014, catching 10 passes for 181 yards, but was still not a starter going into his junior season.
That year, injuries plagued the Razorbacks’ wide receiver room. In a span of eight days, though, they lost three of their top four players at the position to long-term injuries, as Keon Hatcher and Cody Hollister each went down with a broken foot and Jared Cornelius broke his arm.
Suddenly, Morgan was thrust into the No. 1 role. He did not disappoint. By the end of the season, he was among the top 10 receivers in the SEC in all three major statistics with 63 receptions for 843 yards and 10 touchdowns. His 10 scores were tied for second in the conference and tied for third on the UA single-season list at the time.
Despite a change at quarterback, with Austin Allen replacing his brother, Brandon Allen, Morgan was just as good and dependable in 2016. He caught 65 passes for 739 yards and three touchdowns, making him the first and only player in UA history with two seasons of 60-plus receptions. His totals rank fourth and fifth on that list.
Even six years after he finished playing for the Razorbacks, Morgan still ranks eighth in career receptions (138) and 16th in career receiving yards (1,763). Not bad for a guy ranked as the No. 2,080 overall recruit in the 2013 class by the 247Sports Composite and wasn’t involved much in the offense his first two years.
Perhaps that should have been a sign that his younger brother should be taken more seriously as a recruit when he came through Greenwood, but that wasn’t the case.
Grant Morgan didn’t even have a 247Sports Composite rating and was a two-star recruit on Rivals. A scholarship offer from the Razorbacks never came, but he did turn down an offer from Air Force to accept a preferred walk-on spot that allowed him to play with his brother for one year.
He ended up redshirting that season, but quickly established himself as a dependable backup linebacker and special teams ace — a role he maintained for three years. With De’Jon Harris graduating, though, there was a spot in the starting lineup alongside Bumper Pool heading into the 2020 season.
On top of a coaching change, there were questions about whether or not Morgan, who had always graded well as a backup on Pro Football Focus, could handle the workload of a starting linebacker in the SEC. The incoming coaching staff, head coach Sam Pittman and defensive coordinator Barry Odom, clearly had their doubts, too, because they went into the transfer portal for help and landed former four-star recruit Levi Draper from Oklahoma.
Sure enough, not only did Morgan maintain his starting job throughout 2020, but he played at a level that even surpassed his older brother. He racked up 111 total tackles in just nine games – or 12.3 per game, which was tied for the most in the FBS. That helped him earn second-team All-America honors from Walter Camp and the AFCA. He was also a first-team All-SEC selection and a semifinalist for the Butkus Award.
That alone would have been enough for Grant Morgan to be one of Arkansas’ most surprising stories of the past decade, but then he chose to return for a “super senior” season. He wasn’t quite as good in 2021, but he was a critical piece of the Razorbacks’ 9-4 season that ended with a win in the Outback Bowl and he won the Burlsworth Trophy.
3. Brandon Allen Develops Clutch Gene
One of the most polarizing Arkansas athletes of the past decade, Brandon Allen was thrust into the spotlight before he was probably ready. When Tyler Wilson went down against ULM in the second game of the 2012 season, he entered as a redshirt freshman and offensive coordinator Paul Petrino inexplicably kept calling pass plays.
The result was one of the more embarrassing losses in school history. Making matters worse, Allen had to start the following week against No. 1 Alabama. Not surprisingly, it didn’t go well. As if losing the opportunity to learn from offensive genius Bobby Petrino wasn’t enough, his confidence was seemingly shattered.
Allen was named the full-time starter in 2013 when Bret Bielema took over, but completed only 49.6% of his passes for 141.1 yards per game. His numbers improved the following year (56.0%, 175.8 yards/game), but the Razorbacks consistently fell short in close games.
Fairly or not, he received the brunt of the criticism from fans. A segment of the fan base even thought the only reason he was the starter was because of his dad, who was on staff. Whether or not it was because of his play on the field is unclear, but his truck was even torched before that 2014 season.
Despite all of that, the Fayetteville native stuck around and, after a shaky start, was sensational as a fifth-year senior. The Razorbacks suffered an ugly 16-12 loss to Toledo before losing to a Patrick Mahomes-led Texas Tech and to Texas A&M in overtime. He did help them pull off a comeback victory at Tennessee, but it wasn’t until after a respectable loss to Alabama that Allen flipped a switch.
Starting in a four-overtime win over Auburn, he became arguably the best quarterback in the country. In his final seven games, Allen completed 69.0% of his passes for 272 yards per game with 20 total touchdowns and only four interceptions.
What made that stretch even more incredible is the fact that he developed the clutch gene that so many fans believed he didn’t have. That was no more evident than in Arkansas’ epic shootout win at Ole Miss. The game is remembered for Hunter Henry’s heave on fourth-and-25, but Brandon Allen matched Chad Kelly blow-for-blow. He threw a school-record six touchdowns without an interception and scored the game-winning two-point conversion with his legs — after which his teammates carried him off the field on their shoulders.
Two weeks later, Allen broke the record again with seven touchdown passes in a duel with Dak Prescott, but the Razorbacks lost to Mississippi State 51-50. That also tied the SEC record and he might have had a chance to break it, but Arkansas got ultra-conservative in the closing minutes and its potential game-winning field goal was blocked. That was the only loss Arkansas had in its final seven games.
In ESPN’s Total QBR metric, Allen had an 88.0 rating, which ranked second nationally behind only Baylor’s Seth Russell. That helped him get drafted and he’s stuck in the NFL as a backup ever since. He’s currently the No. 2 quarterback behind Joe Burrow in Cincinnati.
2. Devo Davis Transforms into D3vo
Part of a loaded 2020 in-state class, Davonte Davis originally committed to Oklahoma State before flipping to Arkansas after Eric Musselman was hired. Even though he was a four-star recruit, it wasn’t a lock that he’d immediately contribute with the Razorbacks.
In fact, those around the program weren’t even sure he’d be part of the main rotation as a true freshman. When he didn’t even play in two of the first three games of the season and then averaged just 7 minutes in the final three games leading up to SEC play, it seemed like that would be the case.
However, by the midway point of the conference slate, not only was Davis a significant contributor, but he was a starter. He was a critical part of the Razorbacks’ 11-game SEC winning streak and run to the Elite Eight, averaging 10.7 points and 5.4 rebounds in 29.0 minutes over the final 18 games of the season.
Davis was especially good in the NCAA Tournament. Despite being a true freshman, he averaged 14.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.0 assists in those four games — but no shot was bigger than his last second bucket to beat Oral Roberts and send Arkansas to its first Elite Eight in 26 years.
That emergence probably would have been enough for him to crack this top-10 list, but what led to him earning the No. 2 spot is the tear he’s currently on.
The fact that Davis has become one of the Razorbacks’ go-to scorers isn’t necessarily surprising, as he was expected to be a veteran leader and contribute more in that area this season, but it’s how he’s scoring that is the most unexpected.
Over the first 81 games of his career, Davis was a 23.0% shooter from beyond the arc. That included an especially cold 17.9% over the first 17 games of this season.
Almost overnight, though, he became a 3-point sniper for the Razorbacks. Since the Alabama game, Davis has shot 44.7% from deep on a pretty high volume (5.2 attempts per game). He’s scored at least 15 points in each of those nine games — more than double his longest streak of double-digit scoring prior to this stretch.
1. Pandemic Turns Kevin Kopps into G.O.A.T.
At college baseball powerhouses like Arkansas, it’s not common for players to contribute after redshirting for non-injury reasons as freshmen, especially unheralded prospects like Kevin Kopps. However, that’s just what the Texas native did in 2017, posting a 3.31 ERA in 49 innings.
He figured to be a key arm the following season, but he needed Tommy John surgery and could only watch as his teammates came excruciatingly close to winning a national title in 2018.
When he got healthy, Kopps was a key reliever on the team that made it back to Omaha. He made a team-high 30 appearances and posted a 3.89 ERA in 41 2/3 innings. Those were solid, but not spectacular numbers, so it was generally seen as good news when he chose to come back for a fifth season of college baseball.
Unfortunately, things got off to a disastrous start. In seven appearances before the pandemic, Kopps gave up 10 earned runs on 18 hits and four walks in 11 innings — which worked out to a 8.18 ERA and 2.00 WHIP. He actually started the game played a day before the sports world shut down and failed to get out of the second inning against Grand Canyon, after which Dave Van Horn indicated it might be a while before he got another chance to pitch.
Over the summer, Kopps used the layoff to figure out what went wrong. He ultimately decided to switch back to his two-seam fastball, which is what he threw before moving to a four-seamer in 2017. A side effect of that was his cutter becoming one of the most unhittable pitches in college baseball.
After not knowing if he’d be welcomed back for a sixth year, Kopps received a steady flow of praise leading up to the 2021 season, but those outside of the program remained skeptical. Sure enough, he gave up a run in one inning of relief in the season opener. Amazingly, that was one of the only runs he allowed all year.
Eventually evolving into a long reliever, setup man and closer all rolled into one, Kopps put together arguably the most dominant season by a relief pitcher in college baseball history. In a whopping 33 appearances, he went 12-1 with 11 saves and had 131 strikeouts to only 18 walks in 89 2/3 innings. Opponents hit just .162 against him.
During one particularly dominant stretch, Kopps retired 28 consecutive batters over the span of four appearances, the equivalent of a perfect game, plus another out. Only nine of them put the ball in play, as he had 19 strikeouts — including 11 straight at one point.
The only blemish on his record came in Game 3 of the Fayetteville Super Regional, which was his lone start of the season. In that game, though, Kopps pitched into the ninth inning, when he gave up a leadoff home run that was the difference in North Carolina State’s 3-2 win. He threw 118 pitches despite throwing 21 pitches in two scoreless innings to close out the previous day’s loss and 185 pitches the previous week.
Despite falling short of the College World Series, Kopps still won the Golden Spikes Award and Dick Howser Trophy — the sport’s two most prestigious player of the year awards.
It was a remarkable turnaround the likes of which we’ll almost certainly never see again.
Did you miss Part 1 of our list? Check out No. 6-10 here:
More coverage of Arkansas football, basketball and baseball from BoAS…