There was a little sputter with the offense out of the chute in the first Arkansas football scrimmage of the spring on Saturday, but the end result was much like the first five practices. Brandon Allen appears to be the clear leader at quarterback.
That might be what most were trying to play through their minds -- the quarterback race -- when a redshirt freshman ended the scrimmage with a wow hit against a walk-on that wasn't on the spring roster.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema stopped the 101-play scrimmage on a beautiful afternoon at Reynolds Razorback Stadium with the first turnover producing hit of the scrimmage when safety De'Andre Coley plastered Connor McPherson with a hit that would have done Steve Atwater proud. The hit thundered throughout the stadium and the ball bounced 20 yards down the field, eventually recovered by the defense.
The walk-on running back was quickly grabbed by two trainers and deemed okay. McPherson pointed to his chin when asked where he took the hit. Bielema said he was close to being done with what he wanted to see anyway and used the nasty hit as a teaching point for a team trying to shake free from a long SEC losing streak. McPherson had turned up into the hole off tackle when Coley met him after about a 2-yard gain.
Asked if he ended the scrimmage on that hit, Bielema said, "I did. Kind of like saying we come out here (for a press conference), once in a while we ask one question too many."
Bielema said it was down to working a few more plays with the third teams with quarterbacks Rafe Peavey and Duwop Mitchell and it was just perfect timing.
"I'm saying to myself, I don't remember anything significant injury wise coming off the field," Bielema said, "then I wanted to give Rafe – he's looked really good and grown with every practice – so I wanted to give he and Duwop a series out there. I intended to do that. Coley came in there and at first (McPherson) was laying there pretty flat and was afraid something had happened.
"I wanted to really stress to our guys how one play can change momentum. Coley came flying in there and obviously the ball was loose on a big hit. You saw that defensive reaction. So I pointed out to our players. Every teaching point and experience I can give these guys is huge. That defense came off the sideline just whooping and hollering and the offense came out like Ned in the reader. I just wanted to show them how much difference there was because of that one play."
Coley worked with the second and third team on the day. But he's done some things to impress the coach.
"You know, Coley ever since he's come here, he's a striker," Bielema said. "Going back, a little bit of Miami comes out in him. He's a survivor, he knows the best thing he can do is bring a lot of punch to the table. He does that.
"He's got to fine tune everything else that's going on around him. He's still a freshman. I know Coach (Clay) Jennings is very excited about his upside. Some of the other safeties are playing very, very well, which is exciting. I thought Alan Turner made an unbelievable break on a ball there on the sideline.
"He showed us some things he can get down the road. But, I think Coley is a guy who has a role on this team for sure."
There were only two other turnovers on the day. Backup quarterback AJ Derby was intercepted by linebacker Daunte Carr, on a hit and breakup by Otha Peters. There was also an interception by safety Alan Turner on a wonderful break to the sideline on a out-and-up throw from Brandon Allen.
Bielema said the scrimmage was designed to get the first and second teams about 40 snaps each. He said the thin nature of the squad wouldn't allow for more. He pointed out that the wide receiver group was without D'Arthur Cowan (academics), Demetrius Wilson (resting a knee after ACL surgery in the fall) and Eric Hawkins (concussion earlier in the week). All may be back shortly, with Cowan's academic work coming along nicely. Wilson has sparkled in the first five practices, but there were never any plans for him to scrimmage Saturday.
The wide receivers that were available were impressive, especially newcomers Jared Cornelius and Cody Hollister. Sophomore Drew Morgan led the way with five catches for 109. Tight end Hunter Henry was next with five for 91 and 67-yard TD play. Cornelius had four for 60 and Hollister three for 43. Tight end Jeremy Sprinkle had three catches for 73 yards.
Bielema likes what he sees there.
"At the wide receiver position in general, (assistant coach) Michael (Smith) has done a really nice job," Bielema said. "The kids seemed to be in tune. When we break the huddle we didn't have guys running to the right and should have been to the left and a bunch of other jargon. We had some guys jump off sides at that position, which can be tolerated. It should be one of the easiest things for a wide receiver to do.
"I thought Jared Cornelius made some exceptional receptions catches. What you saw today is what we've been seeing all spring. He is very gifted, very athletic, he's a game changer. I think he's an exceptional player.
"I thought Drew Morgan made some nice plays, too. To be quite honest, when you are a player in the program and a player comes into the program behind you and makes some plays, you suddenly get a lot better yourself. I think competition brings the best out of people.
"I thought Kendrick Payne, some of you may not know who he is, a freshman walk-on we felt really good about in the fall. We traveled him to a lot of games. He made an unbelievable catch on the far sidelines. He's really doing a nice job for us and a bonus out of the skies there.
"We are thin there because (Eric) Hawkins wasn't going, Demetrius (Wilson) wasn't going, D'Arthur (Cowan) wasn't going today. So there are three guys you figure into the playing time, so those guys stepped up."
Cowan may practice next week.
"I have suspended from all football activities until he gets the academic world in order," Bielema said. "He has been doing that so there is a chance he might get back out there. We had a very, very positive report about him yesterday. So he may be out there next week in some fashion."
Senior defensive end Trey Flowers will not scrimmage this spring, but Bielema said he's not injured. The three-year starter was held out to let others get more work at end. Running back Jonathan Williams was very limited as Bielema said he's a proven commodity. Williams will be limited "to just what we feel he needs this spring. We knew he would only get first down reps today."
Running back Korliss Marshall did not practice Thursday or Saturday while blood tests are analyzed. Bielema said there is nothing known wrong with Marshall at this point.
"You know we don't really know right now," Bielema said. "He just has some issues we want to get further testing on get some blood work on. It's something that bothered him a little bit last week coming off the break and we will see exactly where it is. Hopefully we will get him cleared by Tuesday. But I don't know the answers. That's why we are doing the tests on him."
Defensive tackle Jeremy Ward didn't practice because of "recurring" back issues. Safety Kelvin Fisher also is out. He practiced Thursday with a knee brace.
The quarterback race is probably not much of a race at the top. Allen completed 17 of 20 passes for 247 yards. There was one TD and one interception. Much of the day was repeated snaps from the minus 33-yard line as the script called for mostly first or third down plays. Only briefly were the units allowed to move down the field.
Bielema was asked if Allen was as proficient in the scrimmage as the stats might suggest.
"He did (have a proficient day)," Bielema said. "I didn't look at the numbers before I came in here but the number one thing that stood out to me in practice number is that he looks different. He looks different physically.
"He plays different. He has got so much composure. What I love there - not that I wanted to see it - but when we had a couple of guys jump offsides he really let the huddle have an awareness of what we needed to do and what was expected.
"You like to have your quarterback step up in that fashion and I think he has done it. What I liked is his natural reaction now is to move up in the pocket instead of the dancing around or escaping outside. He really stepped up and did some nice plays because of it. But you now what on the flip side of that, now through Practice number six he really feels good about where he is throwing the ball.
"And there is a certain amount to be said for a quarterback who believes when he throws the ball on time in rhythm on target that the ball is going to be caught and good things can happen."
Bielema was asked if Austin Allen, redshirt freshman, was closing in on Derby, the senior who backed up Brandon Allen last year. Derby completed 8 of 13 for 145 yards. He had a 3-yard TD to Alex Voelzke. Austin Allen, not provided much protection by the second line, was 5 of 10 for 69 yards. Mitchell was 3 of 6 for 33 and Peavey completed 3 of 3 for 36 yards.
"I think that Austin is making progress with every practice," Bielema said. "He's a kid that flourishes in a game-like situation. He's got a nice arm.
"AJ has experience on him, but that gap is beginning to tighten. Whether or not he's passed him or not, I'll leave that up to Coach Chaney. We'll have a discussion after our film."
Bielema sees the veteran factor with Brandon Allen under center.
"I think just the one thing you can't replace is experience," Bielema said. "And B.A. to be under the big lights and have success and failure, it's very, very hard to overcome that as a player and get that in any other way than getting it in itself. There's a definite difference there.
"I just think even - you'll get a chance to talk to Coach Chaney on Tuesday but - I think Jim approaches the huddle in it when B.A. is in there, because he knows he can do certain things in our offense. That's just coaching between a guy that's been there and a guy that hasn't been there."
Alex Collins and Denzell Evans split the duty with the first and second team at running backs. Each had eight carries. Collins didn't always have great blocking and made just 38 yards, but dazzled on two runs, making something out of nothing. Evans, the redshirt freshman, made 53 yards, with two piercing down-field runs through the A gap.
Collins was the subject of a couple of questions, one about rumors of a possible transfer. Bielema shot that down quickly. He said someone tried to make a "mountain out of a mole hill."
"He's not suspended for any games from my doing or anything along those lines," Bielema said of Collins. "He's really grown as a person. I think the thing about him is he's had so much success in life, when he had a bump in the road he had a tendency to try to do things his own way. And he had to learn how to do the things the way we are here.
"I couldn't be more pleased with where he's at. He had to grow a lot. He had to earn respect from some of his teammates. He's doing that bit by bit now. I think it's - as is the case sometimes - somebody gets hold of something and tries to make a mountain out of a molehill!!!"
What about the rumor on a possible transfer?
"Absolutely not," Bielema said. "The part about transferring I think is completely clueless, baseless and senseless, whoever tried to say it. There isn't anything out there about that."
Bielema said there was an issue early in the off-season program that caused Collins (and eight others) to miss a week here or there. But all has been in order for a long time with the young running back.
"I obviously took Alex," Bielema said, "I suspended I think nine guys during the course of the winter - for a variety of different things. They might have done something in the classroom. They might have done something away from the game. They may have done something that I felt they needed to have some time away from the game.
"For us, we took Alex out for a week. He responded very very well. There's certain things that he's doing that are exactly what we want. The reports since we suspended him have been positive. Yeah, I don't know .. I was on break there when someone talked about the suspension."
Bielema was asked what position group had shown the most improvement.
"I would say wide receivers jump out to me," Bielema said. "Really, if you're going to pick an offense, defense, they complement each other, it's wide receivers and defensive backs.
"I think our corners have improved. I can't even tell you how excited I am about (Tevin Mitchel). He's had - in my opinion - the most improvement through six practices as anybody on the football team. Just confidence, swagger, ability, toughness. He had a little bit of a contused shoulder issue the other day during practice. I know a Tevin Mitchel of the past who would have taken the rest of the day to himself. He was back in there as fast as he could get back in.
"I think (Carroll Washington) is playing decent football, Jared Collins, Will Hines played through an injury Thursday and today. I can't say enough about the effect coach Jennings has had on our secondary."
There were around 2,000 fans at the scrimmage and they were the most excited when there was a little action after the whistle. Bielema wasn't as excited about it as the fans.
"Whether there are 70,000 in there or whatever, I don'rt really hear," Bielema said. "I just kind of ignore it. I took Dan (Skipper) out because he threw a couple of punches. I love Dan and I love the way he plays. I am always bragging on him and he plays through the whistle, but I saw a couple of punches being thrown and I just can't tolerate that.
"It doesn't make a lot of sense. Dan is a very intelligent person, but to punch a face mask is not usually met with good results. I know he is going to be an engineer, but I don't know if the face mask is engineered in a way to take a fist."
Did he like the physical play?
"I like physical play, but nothing after the whistle," Bielema said. "Alex threw a punch early on after TQ (Coleman) came up and whacked him. If you throw a punch, you are going to get thrown out. There is a definite line you have to walk there. But I don't mind a little bit of – shall we say engagement – to let them know that it is going to be a part of the game."
What are the plus or minus areas of the offensive line?
"To be very honest, I have been very impressed with Luke Charpentier," Bielema said. "To lose Travis Swanson and realize how good a player he is, to not have a glaring hole at that position says a lot about Luke.
"Cordale Boyd has done some nice things. He has gotten a little too much of a care factor. Everything he does, if it is negative, he just takes it down on himself. He has got to let things go a little bit, but I think the center position overall has been a positive.
"Dan Skipper is going to be a tremendous football player here. He has impressed me at left tackle for a guy that I know started eight games at left guard. What he is doing for a true freshman at left tackle is pretty impressive. Denver came along pretty good today.
"Brey Cook has had a nice spring. I know he jumped offside today, but he is in it and engaged.
"Mitch Smothers had a little bit of an issue today with the snap count, but he has a a better spring than I expected. There have been some pleasant surprises and I am very, very pleased with where they are going."
Defensively, the leader tackler was Detrich Wise with nine, with one sack. Daunte Carr had eight, with one sack. Martrell Spaight had seven tackles and one sack. Taiwan Johnson and Coley had six tackles. Jamicheal Winston had three tackles for losses, two of them for sacks. Tevin Beanum also had two sacks. D.J. Dean, on corner blitzes, had two sacks.
Bielema noticed the play of Wise, both in production and in leadership. It was a good day for the rangy sophomore end with the great frame and quicks.
"I would agree," Bielema said. "Deatrich, I can't go out and go from coast to coast and find a better physical prsence than Deatrich. He's 6-foot-5, 275 or 285. He runs like a deer.
"He's intelligent. The things that have limited him is his maturity, ability to handle the moment. He's gotten so much better at that, I think the kid has grown by leaps and bounds. The kid has adjusted to coach (Rory) Segrest, what he's teaching him. He continues to flourish. He did a nice job, I was anxious to see who took the reigns in that defensive line group when Trey wasn't out there and he seemed to do that."
Brandon Allen completed 17 of 20 passes in the scrimmage.
Austin Allen was 5 of 10.
Brandon Allen fires a pass with Jim Chaney watching.
Jared Cornelius hauls in a pass.
AJ Derby threw a TD pass to Alex Volezke.
Bret Bielema thought his defense played physical.
Bret Bielema said transfer rumors about Alex Collins were "baseless."
Kendrick Payne made a sparkling catch.
Photos by Jason Ivester, Hawgs Illustrated
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