No Shortage Of Punt Return Candidates

Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema throws the punt return competition wide open and auditions nine different candidates - including the team's holder and a talented redshirt - as his team continues to prepare for Saturday's game at No. 1 Mississippi State.

There was no shortage of candidates during Arkansas Tuesday’s practice when the door to the punt return job swung wide open.

Razorback head coach Bret Bielema noted he would be “calling all cars” for the job and ended up auditioning nine different players for a spot where just 15 of foe's 43 punts have been returned for a total of 115 yards while many have not bee caught and thus had a negative affect on field position.

“Yesterday there were nine guys back there,” Bielema said Wednesday on the SEC Teleconference. “We had D.J. Dean, Jared Cornelius, Demetrius Wilson, Matt Emrich, Cody Hollister, Drew Morgan, Cornelius Floyd and also had JoJo Robinson.

“Those are the ones that jumped out in my mind,” Bielema said. “All did a nice job with it and we will just see where it goes.”

That is just one of the areas that Arkansas (4-4, 0-4) hopes to have shored up by the time that it plays at No. 1 Mississippi State (7-0, 4-0) Saturday night at 6:15 p.m.

The Bulldogs are the top team in the AP and ESPN rankings and added – most importantly – the top spot in the College Football Playoff rankings when they were announced last night.

“We’re excited,” Bielema said. “It obviously is a unique opportunity to play the number one team in college football – especially fresh off the rankings from last night. I think our kids are fired up.”

Bielema noted that Mississippi State had earned its lofty ranking after entering the season unranked.

“It is a very, very talented football team in all three phases, a well-coached team that is playing with a lot of confidence,” Bielema said. “We are excited to get over there and see what we can get going.”

The Razorbacks come in off a 45-17 win over UAB to give them one more win they had last season, but are enduring a 16-game losing streak in SEC contests.

“We had a good performance on Saturday, but obviously we didn’t come here to play non-conference opponents, we came here to play in the SEC West and we have a tremendous challenge once again.”

Bielema noted that both sophomore linebacker Brooks Ellis and freshman cornerback Henre’ Toliver should play on Saturday after missing last week with injuries.

“Brooks practiced yesterday and had a great day,” Bielema said. “You always hold your breath on how are they going to come in the day after, but he was in for treatment at 6 a.m. this morning and was all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and had essentially no regression whatsoever.

“I talked to him a little bit earlier today just to see where he was at and he feels good,” Bielema added.

“Henre’ Toliver did feel a lot better yesterday and we did some things with him,” Bielema continued. “He didn’t get into live football, but he is going to make a goal of it today.”

Arkansas has had issues with punt returns this season, including letting too many drop and at other times taking unnecessary risks that resulted in turnovers.

The competition will continue on Wednesday.

“Today, we will have a special section where we are actually punting the ball and we will have all those guys take reps and judge them and evaluate them on that,” Bielema said.

“Then we actually have a couple of periods of punt block and return where we work Mississippi State looks and how we want to defend them and what we want to accomplish.

“The final decision will probably be made on Friday morning,” Bielema added. “After our Thursday practice in the evening, we’ll kind of see where we are at. Today we will narrow it down and see where we go.”

The two names on the list that were most surprising were Robinson, who has been redshirting this season, and Emrich – the team’s holder.

“As far as a kid that could play that is a redshirt or not, that is really in the young man’s hands,” Bielema said. “I ask guys the first game of the year if they want to play and they tell me yes or no. The same thing goes now.

“I went to a young man a couple of weeks ago and he was going to play – before re-injuring his hamstring – in (true freshman cornerback/safety) Santos Ramirez,” Bielema added. “We thought he could help us, but unfortunately it couldn’t happen. That is really up the guys and they have to make that decision themselves.”

Bielema noted that Emrich (6-3, 184), a former El Dorado standout wide receiver, returned punts for his high school team.

“He volunteered for it,” Bielema said. “He came to myself and our special teams coaches and ask for an opportunity to go back there and do it and looked pretty good.”

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