This opener was never endangered by weather, never in doubt on the scoreboard, and never remotely interesting. But it happened, Arkansas is 1-0 (unlike Baylor, UNLV and — chortle — Texas A&M), and the Hogs lost very little against hapless Florida A&M in a 49-7 walloping that may have been a sendoff to War Memorial Stadium.
That last sentence does have a caveat. Prized corner Ryan Pulley, arguably the most improved player from 2015 to 2016, took a shot to his shoulder and is now done for 2017. It’s a big loss to be sure but one that the Razorbacks may be able to overcome with some slight personnel shifts in the secondary. Fortunately, Henré Toliver looks like he might recover the form that made him a sudden sensation in 2014 when he smothered Alabama’s Amari Cooper and did a number on other wideouts. His fumble recovery for six was probably the most dynamic play of a night that had a paucity of highlight-reel material.
Tailbacks David Williams, Chase Hayden and Devwah Whaley all showed out at times, and it does indeed appear that Arkansas’s depth there will be just fine in spite of Rawleigh Williams’ early retirement. David Williams has a real sparkplug mentality, like he is itching to get into the game just to show the younger guys that he can’t be discounted even if he is a transfer with less acclaim. His pass-catching ability helps, too, and Hayden’s got a bit of Alex Collins’ shiftiness in him.
This was an opportunity to see a few new faces at receiver and it’s no surprise that Austin Allen was a little less than comfortable with them. Junior college transfer Jonathan Nance made some nice catches on the perimeter and showed the ability to get yardage after the grab. Jarrod Barnes had one big reception. It’s hard to get a read on them after this kind of game because Allen hardly needed to throw much, and Hogs offensive coordinator Dan Enos clearly didn’t want him to, lest TCU get too much of a visual on what the Hogs will try to do in their true home opener this coming weekend.
The discouraging thing was that the offensive line struggled again, largely at tackle, and Allen got walloped a couple of times. This simply cannot be a theme two years in a row, and if it is, OL coach Kurt Anderson will be unemployed. Allen’s toughness and ability to escape bad situations are laudable, but another year sustaining 40-plus sacks will not do, and it will be the paramount concern this week as the team readied for Gary Patterson’s Horned Frogs, which always embody the pin-back-the-ears approach. If Arkansas cannot keep Allen clean and allow him some degree of pocket stability Saturday evening, then it may mean that backup Cole Kelley is playing out of necessity rather than choice.
Kelley, incidentally, is some kind of man-horse combo. He didn’t get a chance to really lengthen the field but the 6-foot-7, 270-pounder did scoot to the sideline and flick a couple of Rattler defenders to the turf as if he were doing a community theater sendup of Gulliver flicking away Lilliputians. The redshirt freshman has promise and he’s going to be popular like most backup quarterbacks are, but for different reasons, namely because he is such a physical curiosity with his sheer size being somewhat offset by a functional set of legs. The Ryan Mallett comparisons therefore do not register, as he’s far more mobile and maybe a little bit craftier.
On the other side of the football, Arkansas looked very adept at employing three down linemen. This move makes sense for numerous reasons, and we’ve applauded the decision here recently, but it’s nice to see it in action. As vanilla as the overall gameplan was, the only reason Arkansas didn’t pitch a shutout was due to FAMU desperately pulling off a second-half fake punt to sustain its sole scoring drive. The defense, frankly, was excellent and showed promise in two long-suffering areas: form tackling and lateral quickness.
Maybe this A&M isn’t quite Texas A&M — again, we will guffaw here because Florida A&M actually did win its opener and not choke away a 34-point lead — but it’s still an athletic and frisky team that couldn’t be discounted in a weekend where small schools had some success traveling to bigger ones. The Hogs took care of business against a lesser foe, which is something Bielema teams have generally done, save for that unfairly maligned Toledo game two years ago.
TCU will be no easy task, but even with a humdrum opener and Pulley’s absence, Arkansas still looks well equipped and prepped for the Frogs. This will be an ultimate test of the new defensive scheme because TCU quarterback Kenny Hill, for all his faults, can drive a coordinator mad with his quick feet and rocket arm. But be not surprised if this ends up being a game decided by tailbacks because both squads have a stable of them, and they’re all unique in what they bring to the field. Pearls still thinks the Hogs’ group is stronger up and down than the one that Patterson will deploy, but honestly, it may be a thin margin in that comparison and on the scoreboard. If Arkansas can jump out of the gates with the vigor and passion that was understandably missing from a Thursday night dud off Markham, it will be able to hold off the Frogs behind a defense that seems completely retooled.