FAYETTEVILLE — Fall camp is officially in the books for Arkansas football, capped by the second preseason scrimmage Saturday morning.
Practicing inside Reynolds Razorback Stadium, the No. 19 Razorbacks repped about 125 plays in their final tune-up before welcoming No. 23 Cincinnati to Fayetteville on Sept. 3 for both teams’ season openers.
The scrimmage was closed to the media, but head coach Sam Pittman, right tackle Dalton Wagner and safety Jalen Catalon met with reporters afterward to provide some insight on how it went down.
It started off with the Rocket Sanders show, as the sophomore running back accounted for 50-60 yards on the first-team offense’s 75-yard touchdown drive against the second-team defense, including a 30-yard reception. KJ Jefferson capped the possession with a 5-yard touchdown run on which he didn’t get touched.
However, outside of that, it sounds like the defense had a much better performance overall than it did a week earlier in the first scrimmage.
In fact, the day ended with a “get-the-ball-back” situation in which the offense needed to burn the final 2:07 to preserve a one-point lead. If the defense managed to force a punt, the other offense would take over in a two-minute situation needing a field goal to win.
“The defense won both of those situations, which was good to see, to be honest with you,” Pittman said. “I’m not rooting for the offense or defense, but I thought the defense played a lot better today than they did last week.
“Which a lot of times you say that and think the offense didn’t play very well. That’s not the case. I just thought the defense made more plays, made the close plays more this week than they did last week.”
Pittman said he was also pleased with his special teams, which made fewer mistakes than last week, when they committed four unforced penalties. Cam Little and Jake Bates combined to make seven of nine kicks, with each missing one, but distances were not provided.
Here are a few other key takeaways from the scrimmage based on Saturday’s interviews…
Assessing the Quarterbacks
It sounds like starting quarterback KJ Jefferson distributed the ball well amongst his pass catchers, with tight end Trey Knox hauling in a 10-yard reception and wide receivers Jadon Haselwood and Warren Thompson making catches of 15 and 25 yards, respectively. He also connected with wide receiver Matt Landers for a 10-yard touchdown in the red zone period.
Pittman said KJ Jefferson’s confidence is “night and day” compared to last year, when he was an unproven first-year starter. Jefferson now has a better understanding of his reads and is actually progressing through them rather than quickly getting off his first read and finding Treylon Burks.
“I thought KJ controlled the offense,” Pittman said. “He’s your leading rusher on the team and you never run him in camp. … What I’m excited about is he can throw and we can catch. When we hand the ball off, we’re still having success. He’s just getting better all the time.”
Backup quarterback Malik Hornsby had a long touchdown pass to Ketron Jackson Jr. that went for 65 yards, plus hit tight end Nathan Bax and wide receiver Quincey McAdoo for 18- and 15-yard touchdowns, respectively, in the red zone. McAdoo also had a 25-yard reception from Hornsby.
The “play of the day,” according to Pittman, though, was made by Cade Fortin, the walk-on transfer from North Carolina and South Florida. He threw a side-arm pass that somehow got through the defense and to Sam Mbake for a 5-yard touchdown. A spokesperson for the UA later described it as similar to the signature throw of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Offensive coordinator Kendal Briles told reporters on Friday that Fortin has been a more accurate passer than Hornsby throughout camp and it sounds as though he may be pushing for the backup job behind Jefferson.
Transfer Defensive Linemen Shine
One reason the defense had a better day Saturday than in the first scrimmage was because of the pressure forced by the defense line. At the center of that was the Razorbacks’ transfers.
After a couple of really rough practices at the start of camp, Georgia Tech defensive end transfer Jordan Domineck has come on strong the last week or so and has seemingly been promoted from the third-team defense to the second unit. His solid play continued in the scrimmage.
“I tell you who made a couple really good plays was Jordan Domineck,” Pittman said. “He showed his speed. On the get-the-ball-back, we were outside of him on offense, the quarterback, and he ran him down. Whether he tackled him or not, I don’t know. He tagged him. He’s got some speed. He’s really come a long way in two weeks.”
The other defensive end Arkansas landed in the portal was Landon Jackson. The LSU transfer had at least two sacks, according to a UA spokesperson, and Pittman said he was “all around the quarterback all day.”
“He’s got the ability to create separation on the edge that some d-ends aren’t able to do,” right tackle Dalton Wagner said. “He does a great job with speed to power as well too. I think we had a pull play today where he might’ve gotten into one of our guards pretty good. His ability to kind of extend on that edge is really, really good.”
Domineck was a summer arrival, while Jackson enrolled early, but was limited this spring because he was still recovering from a torn ACL. That meant neither of them were really able to go through spring ball, so this has been their first time going through practice with the Razorbacks.
“I think the kids are starting to get comfortable with themselves and the position they are, and it takes a while to learn how we practice,” Pittman said. “Once you learn that and learn the expectations of practice, all that stuff is in your mind all the time. I just think now they’re relaxing, and we’re able to see their true athletic ability.”
It’s unknown what he did in Saturday’s scrimmage specifically, but Arkansas State transfer Terry Hampton’s name has come up quite a bit the past week as a surprising development.
The 6-foot-1, 314-pound defensive tackle has worked primarily with the second-team defense, but he’s also started mixing in with the first group.
“Hampton is hard to block. I mean, he’s got built-in leverage. You’ve got to get down there and root him out. He’s got a high motor, a guy that has done a really good job in there.”
Junior Eric Thomas Jr. also had a sack in the scrimmage, while Pittman said seventh-year super senior Dorian Gerald “flashed.” Both guys have primarily worked with the third-team defense during media viewing periods this fall.
Fewer Explosive Plays Allowed
Last week, the Razorbacks’ offense torched the defense with multiple long passes. Georgia/Toledo transfer Matt Landers alone had catches of 50 and 65 yards, while Warren Thompson had a 40-yard touchdown.
Based on statistics provided to the media, Jefferson’s longest pass on Saturday was the aforementioned 25-yard hook up with Thompson. The only long passing play of the day was Hornsby’s 65-yard touchdown to Ketron Jackson Jr.
Although the running backs had a few lanes that could have gone for long runs, Pittman said he was pleased with the fewer explosive plays allowed by the defense.
“We’ve got big wideouts, but they were in better position than they were,” Pittman said. “You never know — we did break a few runs. I don’t know how far they would go, really — But overall, I think it’s just because the defense played better. I don’t really feel like the offense didn’t play well. I just think our defense made key plays in there to get off the field.”
A possible explanation for the improvement was the presence of star safety Jalen Catalon, who missed the first scrimmage because of family reasons. He made sure to stress limiting the big plays leading up to Saturday.
“I made it known that last scrimmage, they had too many plays (and) we had to compete out there and go out there and show what the defense can be about, especially from the backend standpoint,” Catalon said. “So I made that a statement and we came out there and we played really well.”
Speaking of the secondary, Pittman revealed that LaDarrius Bishop is still starting opposite of Hudson Clark at cornerback — the position he identified as the biggest ongoing battle last week. Bishop replaced Malik Chavis earlier this week.
Clark has played the best of the group over the last couple of weeks, Pittman said. Catalon added the former walk-on has four interceptions in camp and Dalton Wagner said he has “magnet hands.”
Arkansas Football Injury Report
Although head coach Sam Pittman said he felt like the Razorbacks came out of Saturday’s scrimmage “pretty healthy,” he did provide some updates on a few guys who’ve been banged up…
- [NEW] The only injury Pittman noted from the scrimmage was to center Ricky Stromberg, who he said hyperextended his elbow. It didn’t sound like anything serious.
- [NEW] Walk-on offensive lineman Josh Street was not spotted at Friday’s practice and didn’t play in Saturday’s scrimmage, either. Pittman revealed he has an ankle injury, but it’s not a long-term injury.
- [NEW] Redshirt sophomore offensive lineman Marcus Henderson is still working his way back from a pectoral injury. Although he’s been present at practice, he’s been in a green non-contact jersey and doing things on the side. Pittman said he’ll start participating in individual drills next week and they anticipate he’ll be ready for the Cincinnati game.
- [NEW] Henderson is the projected backup at center and Street has taken the second-team reps with him out. With Street out, freshman Patrick Kutas has gotten work as the second-team center the last two days. However, Pittman said he’s probably sixth in the pecking order at the position.
- [NEW] Although he got a couple of sacks in Saturday’s scrimmage, Pittman said defensive end Landon Jackson is dealing with a lingering ankle injury.
- [NEW] Redshirt freshman wide receiver Jaedon Wilson has missed the last few days of practice with a shoulder injury. Pittman said he hurt his AC joint when he fell down in a practice the other day, but he won’t be out too long.
- [NEW] Running back Dominique Johnson tore his ACL during the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1 and has missed all of spring ball and fall camp. Pittman said he is going to do some non-contact individual drills next week just to assess where he is in his recovery.
- [NEW] Defensive tackle Marcus Miller had a arthroscopic surgery on his knee earlier this month and is expected to return to action in the middle of or late next week.
- [NEW] Redshirt freshman offensive lineman Devon Manuel, who had been the backup left tackle before going down with an undisclosed injury, is about a week away from returning to action.
- [NEW] Pittman has yet to reveal any specifics regarding defensive tackle Taurean Carter’s injury, and has remained optimistic about him being able to play this year, but he said Saturday that it’s “going to be a minute.”
Check out what Sam Pittman, Dalton Wagner and Jalen Catalon said about the scrimmage:
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