FAYETTEVILLE – At least two defensive backs that Arkansas didn’t have for last Saturday’s 37-10 season-opening loss to Georgia should be available when the Razorbacks visit Mississippi State for Saturday night’s 6:30 SEC West game in Starkville, Miss.
Fourth-year senior Jarques McClellion and freshman redshirt Devin Bush, not suiting up against Georgia during this era when so many players are in and out of coronavirus quarantine because of COVID-19 symptoms or contact tracing associated with others tested COVID positive, “will be back,” Coach Sam Pittman said Monday.
Pittman held his Monday presser before the Razorbacks waged their closed practice launching preparations for Saturday night’s game televised on the SEC Alternate Network against Coach Mike Leach’s nationally 16th Bulldogs.
Having McClellion and Bush available, and first-team safety Joe Foucha, only returned to practice last Thursday but expected to practice every day this week, couldn’t be better timed.
The Razorbacks obviously need every capable pass-defender they can muster in Starkville.
First-year Mississippi State Coach Leach last Saturday spectacularly debuted his “Air Raid” offense he famously established head coaching Texas Tech and Washington State.
Graduate transfer via Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello set a SEC record 623 passing yards when the Bulldogs stunned, 44-34 the reigning national champion LSU Tigers in Baton Rouge, La.
“Costello, he was incredible,” Pittman said. “Throwing every throw with great poise. I mean it was unbelievable for him to be a transfer and then come in and do what he did was really outstanding.”
For the long haul, Arkansas might have improved its depth with normally starting Foucha worked back in the rotation off the bench.
Simeon Blair, the third-year sophomore ex-walkon from Pine Bluff put on scholarship by Pittman, started at safety. Blair made three tackles and drew Pittman’s praise.
“Simeon stepped right in there and did a really nice job for us,” Pittman said. He’s smart, detailed oriented and he really plays hard.”
Arkansas’ depth chart lists Blair and Foucha as “either-or” starters against Mississippi State.
Sophomore defensive end Mataio Soli also returns, Pittman said, after missing the Georgia game.
Soli’s return could factor prominently. Senior starting defensive end Dorian Gerald recorded a sack among his four tackles against Georgia but left the game upon injuring an ankle.
Sophomore defensive end Zach Williams posted nice stats with seven tackles subbing for Gerald against Georgia.
Pittman would love to rotate them all trying for a fresh pass rush against Costello.
“Hopefully Dorian will be able to play,” Pittman said.
Arkansas’ offense requires special preparations to rebound from being mostly stifled by Georgia’s great defense while aware that Mississippi State’s lesser touted defense surprised LSU with seven quarterback sacks.
And the defense, while drawing praise for holding Georgia without a touchdown for 39 minutes, obviously must especially prepare for Leach’s unconventional offense.
But it’s special teams off the Georgia game apparently requiring the most special attention.
Arkansas suffered a blocked punt while Georgia netted 91 yards on two kickoff returns.
“I think we have to be a lot better on special teams,” Pittman said. “Georgia dominated us on special teams. We couldn’t get off hold-ups. Special teams has to improve in a quick way. We can fix that. We’ve just got to coach better and execute better.”
Arkansas punters George Caratan and Sam Loy “punted well,” Pittman said.
Caratan averaged 48 yards with a long 57 on six punts.
Loy, capable of throwing the opposition off stride with rugby punt, averaged 40 yards on his two punts.
Caratan suffered the blocked punt though not from his own fault, Pittman said.
“I didn’t think his operation was slow,” Pittman said. “They collapsed the middle and came right off the edge. We’re overlapped too much on our shield, as well. So we’ve got to fix that.”
Georgia punt Jake Camarada was outstanding, five times out of seven punting Arkansas inside its 20 while averaging nearly 49.9 per punt.