FAYETTEVILLE – Presumably most of the announced 18,874 attending Arkansas’ Red-White spring football game came to Reynolds Razorback Stadium hoping to see new starting quarterback KJ Jefferson pick up with big plays to old hand big play receivers Treylon Burks and Michael Woods.
Given that presumption, presume them instantly rewarded.
Jefferson, not new to Arkansas as a third-year sophomore but the first time approaching a Razorbacks season as the starting quarterback, set the tone for Saturday’s spring finale.
Against the first defense opening against the first offense, Jefferson on third and four threw 36 yards to Burks immediately followed by a 33-yard touchdown to Woods.
Just what Coach Sam Pittman and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles ordered and what Jefferson gladly delivered.
“The connection on the deep ball with Treylon and Mike is pretty good,” Jefferson said. “We’ve been working all spring about it. Coach Briles is a huge believer in giving guys a chance on the outside and going up and making plays. We’ve got playmakers. So why not give them a chance? As far as me I put my trust in those guys. They trust me to put the ball in good spots and they are going to make plays.”
And they did.
Working entirely first (White) offense vs. first (Red) defense Jefferson, 6 of 11 for 153 yards without a turnover, also threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Burks and a 42-yard pass to wideout Trey Knox.
“I thought KJ couldn’t have had a better start,” Pittman said. “He did some really nice things. I think he’s certainly maturing. He’s got command of this team. His teammates believe in him. You have to earn that at quarterback and he certainly has.”
Of course as a head coach also concerned with defense was it discouraging that Burks and Woods were so wide open on their first series catches?
“ Well, I mean, you’re always concerned about guys wide open,” Pittman said. “But we have one of the best secondary coaches (defensive coordinator Barry Odom and secondary coach Sam Carter) in the country and they’ll get it fixed. Hopefully it was just a throw and a catch. Barry and Sam will get that fixed. I’m not concerned about it at all.”
Pittman has bragged on the secondary throughout the spring and said the receivers and quarterbacks have had to improve to meet the challenge.
“They (receivers) had had a good spring,” Pittman said. “They have to because the secondary forces you to. I’ve said it multiple times that I’m so proud of the way our secondary plays and the way that they’re a unit back there.
All-SEC safety Jalen Catalon said he defense can ill afford to start as it did but did but did improve as the scrimmage continued.
The first half, featuring either the White first offense vs. the Red first defense or the Red second offense against the White second defense closed in a 20-20 tie.
The final score, with mostly reserves playing for both the Red and White in the second half, finished with Red ahead, 30-20.
While Pittman acknowledged the offense had more of the best of it in the first half, he noted the defense consistently stopped the offense on third and short and fourth and short.
Jefferson also wasn’t satisfied.
“The running game I feel like we could have done a lot better than we did,” Jefferson said. “We still had some great runs on both sides of the field, but I feel we could have done a lot better just as far as correcting stuff up front. The O-line recognizing who to block. Just some of that stuff, but I feel overall both teams did a great job.”
Pittman said the running game will improve when running quarterbacks Jefferson and second-year freshman backup Malik Hornsby can run fill tilt in games rather than be whistled down in caution jerseys as this the case as tacklers approach in spring and preseason scrimmages to avoid injuries.
Though nearly intercepted a couple of times Myles Slusher, the safety tried at cornerback Saturday, Hornsby did not commit a turnover while completing 11 of 18 passes for 144 yards.
Hornsby completed a 24-yard touchdown pass to reserve receiver John David White who caught 5 total for 87 yards.
“Don’t you like him?” Pittman said when asked about White. “I mean, I love him. He can separate in his routes, he catches, he blocks, he’s tough. There’ll certainly be a place for him because he’s earned that.”
Hornsby and running back T.J. Hammonds didn’t mesh on a pitch recovered by defensive back Nathan Parodi.
Hammonds also fumbled, stripped at the end of what would have been a good 9-yard run.
On the plus side, Hammonds was the game’s leading rusher, 9 carries for 67 yards with an 18-yards rushing touchdown.
Regarding Hammonds, Pittman said, “I’m becoming a believer of Malik Hornsby more and more each time he goes out there.”
Running back Reid Turner of Farmington ran a 15-yard touchdown during a third unit vs. third unit second half clash.
The Hogs went 5 for 5 on field goals. January enrolled freshman Cameron Little kicked 20 and 38-yarders.
Returnee Matthew Phillips kicked 27, 24, and 26-yarders.
“To be honest with you, our team needed that,” Pittman said. “We needed to see our guys make field goals. It was certainly a positive for me, you know, of where we could kick from and things of that nature. I thought Sam Loy punted really well as well today, and then the kickers all did a nice job. Vito (Calvaruso) kicked the one (kickoff) out of bounds, which we can’t do, but other than that I thought they had a nice day.”