FAYETTEVILLE – Sam Pittman doesn’t need nor want an Arkansas quarterback controversy with his Razorbacks about to open the season against the Rice Owls at 1 p.m. Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
However with injury risk always one play away from removing third-year sophomore KJ Jefferson, Pittman does need believing he has real confidence in his backup quarterback.
Pittman has expressed such confidence lately in very mobile redshirt freshman backup Malik Hornsby that Rice Coach Mike Bloomgren took note.
“ KJ, obviously, has already been named as the starter,” Bloomgren said. “But I think the Malik kid – gosh – he could be a running back. He could play about any position on offense, not just quarterback. So both those guys bring so much to the table.”
Frankly, Hornsby’s spring ball passing accuracy looked more running back than quarterback, too.
Pittman asserts that accuracy has August preseason improved and also has with Jefferson. Deemed a more run than pass quarterback upon third-year sophomore’ Jefferson’s 2019 Arkansas arrival from Sardis, Miss., Jefferson did complete 18 of 33 for 274 yards and three touchdowns without a turnover in his lone 2020 start replacing then injured and since turned pro quarterback Feleipe Franks against Missouri.
“I was concerned about Malik Hornsby’s accuracy,” Pittman said before the Hogs practiced Wednesday afternoon. “Where is his accuracy going to be?’ I was concerned at some point about KJ’s accuracy, as well.”
However upon repeatedly watching tape of practices, Pittman said his skeptical eyes had deceived him of perhaps the preseason’s biggest surprises.
“The accuracy of Malik and the accuracy of KJ were quite higher throwing the football than what I believed,” Pittman said. “That would be probably the biggest surprise. As I’m tallying up targets, it was much, much higher than what I thought it was.”
Pittman admitted Hornsby proved he “wasn’t ready” yet when inserted into a goal-line situation last season.
He’s ready now, Pittman said.
Pittman doesn’t have an announced plan to play two quarterbacks Saturday like Bloomgren does with Owls quarterbacks Wiley Green and Nebraska transfer Luke McCaffrey, but doesn’t rule that out.
“Yeah, I think I would,” Pittman said if he felt interspersing Hornsby would help Arkansas’ offensive flow. Malik certainly brings some some speed. We can roll out with him. Hopefully he gets to the outside and he has the two options – run or throw. He’s a very good runner.”
Meanwhile after two years in reserve, Jefferson seems especially ready to be the regular starter off that start at Missouri.
“I think the greatest thing that happened to him was he started and played a game last year,” Pittman said. “Not only for himself but for the team, you know. I think the team really, really believes in him. I know I do. “
Third-year sophomore Preseason All-American safety Jalen Catalon, senior linebacker Hayden Henry and senior tight end Blake Kern, in and out of recent practices because of injuries or illness, both should be ready for Saturday’s game, Pittman said Wednesday.
He’s all but ruled out transfer defensive nose tackle John Ridgeway (appendix) and expressed doubt about injured backup safety Myles Slusher and went into Wednesday’s practice with injured Preseason All-SEC receiver Treylon Burks not having a contact practice since the Aug. 14 scrimmage.
Pittman said he likes the receivers rotation, bolstered by freshmen Ketron Jackson and Bryce Stephens, Oklahoma transfer Jaquayln Crawford and Florida State transfer Warren Thompson added to returnees De’Vion Warren, Tyson Morris, Trey Knox and John David White.
“I feel better about our receivers,” Pittman said.
Even minus Ridgeway, Pittman said for Saturday’s projected plus 92-degree sizzler he’s comfortable he’s got eight quality defensive linemen to rotate in defensive coordinator Barry Odom’s scheme that variously will switch three and four-man fronts.
It would be fine with Pittman for the Hogs to hog the ball against the clock conscious Owls to require alternating some offensive linemen in the heat.
“Very comfortable,” Pittman said. “We’ve rotated tackles, we’ve rotated guards. We know who our backup center (starting right guard Ty Clary) and who our third center (Shane Clenin) is.”
Redshirt eligible players can play up to four games and still retain their 2021 eligibility status for 2022.
True freshmen that Pittman said will be college football baptized Saturday include running backs Raheim “Rocket” Sanders and possibly AJ Green, and receivers Ketron Jackson and Bryce Stephens.
Even on a senior laden defense, precocious true freshmen Chris “Pooh” Paul, a linebacker, and safety Jayden Johnson should play, Pittman said.
Of course it behooves the Hogs Saturday to provide ample opportunities for true freshman place-kicker Cameron Little.