Arkansas, Alabama Freshmen Preparing For SEC

FAYETTEVILLE — When the football slipped out of Elton Ford's hands on the opening kickoff against Western Illinois three weeks ago, Arkansas safety Matt Harris cringed on the sideline.

He had just watched Ford's first college memory — a fumble on the opening kickoff. It was a troubling moment, especially considering Ford was also starting at free safety.

"I ran out there and I was thinking, ‘How the heck am I going to try to settle this guy down? He just fumbled (on) the kickoff. (They're) on the 15-yard line,'" said Harris, who started alongside Ford in Arkansas' 28-24 win against WIU.

Whatever Harris said, it worked. The rookie error didn't start a downward spiral. Western Illinois was held to a field goal and Ford shook it off, handling his extended role the rest of the game.

The scenario is something Arkansas' opponent, ninth-ranked Alabama (3-0), can relate to as the teams prepare for Saturday's Southeastern Conference opener.

The Razorbacks and Crimson Tide have each pulled the redshirts off 15 true freshmen. Florida State (22) and Miami (21) are the only teams to have played more over the first three weeks.

The contributions — fumbles aside — have been critical to each team's success. And the way the freshmen handle their roles could be even more important now that SEC play is underway.

"Those young guys have to know the preseason is over with, so to speak," Alabama center Antoine Caldwell said about the Crimson Tide freshmen. "This is the real deal."

Alabama has already jumped into the top 10 with the help of its highly rated freshmen class. Coach Nick Saban reeled in loads of prep-All Americans last winter and they haven't disappointed.

Wide receiver Julio Jones has been the most productive and dangerous rookie. Running back Mark Ingram and linebacker Dont'a Hightower have played well, too.

Saban would prefer to redshirt all of his freshmen, but he said the Crimson Tide have simply put its best players on the field.

"We don't have a target number," Saban said. "We're just playing the best players. It's not premeditated. If we think a guy is going to make a contribution to the team, we play him."

Arkansas followed the same premise. But many freshmen were also pressed into big roles because of depth problems. Especially on defense, where four freshmen have already started.

Coach Bobby Petrino's offense has needed big plays from freshmen receivers as well. Greg Childs caught six passes in the opener. Chris Gragg had a game-saving catch on a fourth-down play against Louisiana-Monroe. Joe Adams has 10 catches.

"I've been playing good so far," Adams said. "I thought I'd be nervous, but it has been easier than what I thought it would be."

Petrino said his team's youth is still alarmingly apparent heading into the start of SEC play, though.

"There is so much newness," Petrino said. "You see flashes of what they can do. But just being able to play consistent, one play at a time, and be productive on every play you're in there is where we just have to continue to improve."

At the very least, Harris said his Ford and the rest of Arkansas' freshmen are brimming with confidence after playing big roles in the Razorbacks' two come-from-behind wins.

But will it continue with the start of SEC play?

"We'll find out," Harris said. "They've had two good weeks and two hard-fought games to find out a lot about themselves."



Fabulous Freshmen

Fifteen true freshmen have played for both Arkansas and Alabama this season. Here's a look at some of the top newcomers from both schools before Saturday's game:

Arkansas

WR Joe Adams: 10 catches, 121 yards, 1 TD

WR Greg Childs: 6 catches, 88 yards, 1 TD

FS Elton Ford: 9 tackles, 2 pass break ups

Alabama

WR Julio Jones: 10 catches, 107 yards, 2 TD

RB Mark Ingram: 37 carries, 210 yards, 3 TD

LB Dont'a Hightower: 12 tackles, 1 forced fumble

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