Outside of coaches and players themselves, arguably no one knows a team better than those who cover it for a living.
Whether for working in print, television, radio or internet, the good beat reporters attend every press conference, watch every game and (when allowed) practice, develop sources, keep up with daily news and then convey that information to their audience.
It is their job to essentially become experts on the team(s) they cover. Want to know who the fourth-string quarterback is or the backstory of the lightly used walk-on? Ask a beat writer.
Because of that, there aren’t as many surprises as there may appear to be to the casual fan. It may seem as though a certain player came out of nowhere, but if a coach has been consistently talking him up in interviews and he’s been working with the first team at practice, it isn’t that much of a surprise when he finally breaks through on the field or court.
The great thing about sports, though, is that surprises still happen. Players no one — not even their coaches — could have imagined contributing can end up being stars, or they can suddenly develop a skill that was previously viewed as unattainable.
That latter scenario has played out over the past month or so with Arkansas basketball, as Davonte Davis has become a 3-point sniper after struggling mightily from beyond the arc during his first 2.5 years on campus.
Just how incredible of a turnaround Davis has experienced got me thinking of other similar individual player developments during my 10 years on the Arkansas beat.
He certainly ranks up there, but he isn’t No. 1. I’ll get to where he is among the top five such stories on Thursday, but for now, here’s how I rank the back half of the top 10 during my decade of covering the Razorbacks…
10. Unlikely “JK” Pair Help Hogs Make it Back to Omaha
Seemingly a team of destiny in 2018, Arkansas baseball came excruciatingly close to winning its first national title — and that’s all we’ll say about that year’s College World Series. The following year, many were expecting there to be a drop-off because of all the key players lost to the MLB Draft. However, that didn’t happen. The Razorbacks ended 2019 the same place it had the year before, making their first ever back-to-back trips to Omaha.
They weren’t the biggest stars, but a pair of juniors who shared the same initials — J.K. — played a huge role in what was a tremendous encore despite not being particularly productive their first two years in Fayetteville.
Jack Kenley appeared in 77 games over his first two seasons and even started 22 of those, most notably as an injury replacement in 2018, but his numbers didn’t exactly jump off the page. He slashed just .190/.352/.226 with three doubles as his only extra-base hits in 84 at bats.
Jacob Kostyshock didn’t get nearly as many opportunities his first two years at Arkansas, but struggled when he did. He threw 19 1/3 innings across 15 appearances between his freshman and sophomore seasons, posting a 6.52 ERA and 2.02 WHIP. Opponents hit .321 against him and he had 16 strikeouts with 14 walks.
Although both players were praised by Dave Van Horn leading up to the season, it was hard to believe either of them would make a significant impact. Sure enough, they were vital to Arkansas making it back to the College World Series.
Replacing Carson Shaddy as the starting second baseman, Kenley was one of the more reliable hitters in the lineup, slashing .311/.428/.553 and showcasing some power with 13 home runs — third on the team behind Heston Kjerstad (17) and Casey Martin (15). His OPS was an impressive .981, which was more than 400 points higher than the combined OPS of his freshman and sophomore seasons (.578).
Serving as Matt Cronin’s setup man, Kostyshock was a weapon out of the pen. The right-hander posted a 2.64 ERA and 1.11 WHIP while holding opponents to a .211 batting average. He also had 29 strikeouts and only 10 walks in 30 2/3 innings across 22 appearances.
9. Failed Position Change Sparks Climb to No. 1 on Depth Chart
Perhaps the best and most consistent position group of the Sam Pittman era has been running back. It has been the exact opposite story for the tight end room, especially early in his tenure.
That lack of depth led to the Razorbacks trying several different players from several different positions at tight end. Hardly any of them stuck and most of them never panned out at any position, much less tight end — Blayne Toll, Eric Thomas Jr., Levi Draper, Koilan Jackson, Marcus Henderson, etc.
Before finding a solid option in converted wide receiver Trey Knox, another guy they briefly moved to tight end during fall camp 2021 was running back Dominique Johnson. Considering the track record of the previously mentioned players, it was viewed as a last resort to get something out of a low three-star recruit who was ranked No. 1,622 overall in the 247Sports Composite.
Johnson had flashed some in that year’s Red-White Game, granted against a third-team defense littered with true freshmen and walk-ons, but the native Texan was seemingly buried on the depth chart and redshirted in 2020 — something you don’t typically see out of running backs who end up contributing. Trelon Smith was back as the starter and incoming freshmen Rocket Sanders and AJ Green were much more heralded.
The move to tight end lasted only a couple of days, though, and it seemed to light a fire under him. Opportunities didn’t come often, but when they did, Johnson made the most of them. He never got more than six carries over the first seven games of the season, but was averaging 6.6 yards per carry.
After several weeks of saying he would, Pittman finally made him the starter, where he remained the second half of the season. He had a 107-yard game against Mississippi State and was on his way to a strong finish with 77 yards on 11 carries against Penn State in the Outback Bowl, but he was limited in the second half because of an injury that proved to be a torn ACL.
Despite spending much of the season as the No. 3 running back, Johnson finished with 575 yards — just 23 behind Smith for the most among the running backs — and a team-high seven rushing touchdowns. His 5.9 yards per carry was the best on the team, too.
Had it not been for that injury, and his subsequent re-injury this season, Johnson might be higher on this list. Considering the running back room is deeper than ever in 2023, any type of production after two torn ACLs would almost certainly vault him into the top five.
8. Charge Master Also Becomes a Walking Double-Double
Having played alongside Isaiah Joe earlier in his career at Fort Smith Northside and being a four-star, top-100 recruit in his own right, it’s not as if Jaylin Williams came out of nowhere. He was a vital piece of Eric Musselman’s first true signing class, along with fellow in-state stars Moses Moody, Davonte Davis and KK Robinson.
However, despite his accolades, Williams was not an immediate contributor for the Razorbacks. He didn’t even get on the court in a couple of non-conference games and didn’t play more than 20 minutes until the fifth SEC game of the season. By the end of the year, though, he was a key part of the rotation and actually started three of Arkansas’ four NCAA Tournament games.
At that point, it seemed like the natural progression of a freshman feeling his way through the college game. That continued his sophomore year, as he asserted himself as a starter, but was far from a star player — much less an NBA prospect.
Midway through that season, Williams had garnered a reputation for being an elite passing big man and drawing charges better than anyone else in the country, but he was still averaging just 6.8 points and 8.3 rebounds through 14 games.
There were a couple of close calls, but he had yet to notch a double-double at that point. He finally got one against Vanderbilt, a game the Razorbacks lost to drop to 0-3 in SEC play. From then on, it was more surprising when he didn’t get 10-plus points and rebounds.
Including that loss to the Commodores, Williams averaged 13.4 points and 10.8 rebounds the rest of the season, notching a double-double in 16 of 23 games. That just so happened to correspond to Arkansas getting hot and making yet another run to the Elite Eight. Four of his double-doubles came in the NCAA Tournament, tying Corliss Williamson’s UA career record in the big dance.
The way he played down the stretch led to Williams becoming a legitimate pro prospect and he decided to enter the NBA Draft after just two years in college. Oklahoma City took him early in the second round and now he’s getting solid minutes as a rookie, including a handful of starts.
7. From Benchwarmer to NFL Draft Pick
A mid-tier three-star prospect, Armon Watts was widely viewed as “the other” recruit Arkansas football signed from Christian Brothers in St. Louis as part of the 2014 class. He was overshadowed by the late Brian Wallace, a four-star, top-100 offensive lineman.
If the pair was a package deal, it worked out great for the Razorbacks — even though it took a while for that to become apparent. While most of the public clamored for Wallace to get an opportunity to start up front, Watts toiled on the sideline.
The defensive tackle almost melted into the background as he redshirted in 2014 and then played only 114 total defensive snaps over the next three seasons. On top of his lack of playing time, Watts didn’t exactly do much when he was on the field, making just 7 tackles and posting sub-60 grades each year, according to Pro Football Focus.
As a redshirt junior in 2017, he played just the ninth-most snaps among defensive tackles on the team. However, Bret Bielema was fired after that season and the coaching change provided Watts with a chance to make a move — and he did just that.
Chad Morris and John Chavis didn’t do much right during their time in Fayetteville, but after Watts came off the bench and recorded a sack (the first of his career) in the opener against Eastern Illinois, they moved him into the starting lineup. He never relinquished that role.
Watts was one of only a few bright spots during an abysmal 2-10 season. He racked up 49 tackles, including 8.5 for loss and seven sacks, plus notched two pass breakups, three quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles. His seven sacks were second among SEC defensive tackles that season, behind only Alabama’s Quinnen Williams (8).
Williams went on to be the third overall pick in that spring’s NFL Draft, while Watts didn’t get picked until the sixth round. Considering he was a benchwarmer prior to the season, it was a remarkable rise — especially given who his coaches were.
6. Things Finally Click for Chad Spanberger
Being a big, strong prospect and coming from a town called Granite City, Ill., there were always expectations that Chad Spanberger could be a powerful bat in the Arkansas baseball lineup.
He got quite a bit of playing time early in his career, starting 55 games over his first two seasons, but was wildly inconsistent. There were flashes of his power, as he did hit six home runs in 102 at bats his sophomore year — the first of which was a ninth-inning pinch-hit homer that forced extra innings.
That was actually his first hit of the season and his first college home run. It came after he had gone 0 for 8 with four strikeouts the previous two games, illustrating his struggles those first two years. He struck out in 34.0% of his at bats in the 2015 and 2016 seasons.
Heading into his junior year, Dave Van Horn continued the rhetoric of Spanberger being on the verge of a breakout, but he was very slow out of the gate. About a month into the 2017 season, he was hitting just .190 with only two extra-base hits and still striking out 33.3% of the time. With SEC play looming, it looked like he might have to wait until the pros for the breakout to come.
Despite the uptick in competition, Spanberger went on a tear from that point on. He hit .330 and slugged .690 the rest of the season, while his strikeout rate dipped to 25.9%. Even with the Razorbacks being eliminated in the regionals, Spanberger still hit 20 home runs — tying Andrew Benintendi’s total for the most by an Arkansas player since 2010, when the bats were changed.
There was one stretch during the SEC Tournament during which Spanberger might as well have been Babe Ruth. Over the span of 12 plate appearances, he hit five home runs and two doubles, walked three times (twice intentionally), reached on a fielder’s choice and struck out once — which works out to a .778/.833/2.667 slash line. That included a three-homer game in which he actually had a chance to hit for the home run cycle.
The dramatic turnaround got Spanberger on the radar of professional scouts, resulting in him being selected in the sixth round of the 2017 MLB Draft. He has since reached as high as Triple-A.
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