In one fashion or the other, I’ve covered the Razorbacks as a reporter since 1989, but currently, I'm adjusting my viewpoint to that of a fan after a career change. It's nice to be able to introduce red back into my wardrobe and to let my emotions get involved in the games again.
Though the Razorback beat wasn’t always my daily assignment, I’ve seen and written about my fair share of practices and scrimmages, and if I learned anything over the years, it’s to be careful about the conclusions you draw from a scrimmage like the one the Hogs held last Saturday at Razorback Stadium.
Scrimmages aren’t games. They aren’t conducted for fans, and they don’t produce a winner or a loser except in the most broad sense. Scrimmages are basically tests for units and individuals. The winners are the players who grade out well once the coaches view tape, and the losers are the ones who come up short.
Rarely are scrimmages even coached like a game. Scrimmages are orchestrated to check particular aspects of the offense or defense, and unless you attend the coaching meetings, it’s difficult or even impossible to know exactly what the coaches goals were.
Attempting to discern what type of play-caller Paul Petrino will be for the Hogs this season from Saturday’s scrimmage may be fun, but it’s also futile. The plays ran weren’t an attempt to win a game and they weren't geared toward a specific opponent like they will be on Saturdays. They were an effort to learn where the squad stands after two weeks of workouts.
Likewise, it would be inaccurate to declare that Arkansas’ defense has improved or to lament that the offense is weaker from Saturday’s results. While coaches generally will give a quick assessment of a scrimmage as part of their media responsibilities at its conclusion, they will almost always say something to the effect, "I can’t be certain until I watch the tape."
If the coaches who know what they are looking for can’t properly or effectively gauge performances right after the scrimmage in more than generalities, then reporters, bystanders and fans certainly can’t either.
Any bold proclamations — good or bad — that you may hear or read about coming out of the scrimmage, take with a grain of salt. Unless there is a stunning upset the first two weeks of the season, we’re not going to know a ton about this team until Sept. 15 when Alabama visits Fayetteville.
And win or lose, there will still be question marks about the Razorbacks throughout the season because of the unorthodox situation it finds itself in with not only an interim head coach in the person of John L. Smith but in also all intents and purposes an interim staff.
While I don’t think a definitive assessment about a team can be made from watching a scrimmage, there still is a lot that can be learned and much that's fun to talk about. Here’s a few things I noticed from the scrimmage, but remember take it all with a grain of salt.
* Senior quarterback Tyler Wilson exudes confidence on the field. He may prove to be the best leader the Hogs have had at that position since Clint Stoerner (1996-99) or maybe even Quinn Grovey (1987-90). But, Saturday, particularly early in the scrimmage, Wilson may have shown a bit too much confidence in his arm. He tempted fate, throwing into double coverage several times. For the most part, his arm proved strong and accurate enough to get away with it, but freshman linebacker Otha Peters (6-1, 228) made him pay with an excellent oskie when under duress Wilson attempted to throw underneath the zone. Scrimmages where the quarterback can't be sacked can give everyone a false view. Wilson would be better off throwing such an attempt away instead of trying to do too much.
* Brandon Mitchell (6-4, 230) is a big, physical, load with outstanding hands and oodles of athletic ability. Lined up in the slot, he looks like a tight end who got lost. But when the ball was snapped Saturday, he looked anything but lost. Highlighting is 9 catches was a diving touchdown catch. His performance was as impressive as his recent press clippings. I know he wants to return to the quarterback spot next season, but his surest route to the NFL might be running routes instead of throwing them.
* Whereas the Hogs attacked teams with smurfs last season with the speedy but smallish seniors Jarius Wright and Joe Adams, it appears like they will do it with giants this year. Receiver Cobi Hamilton and tight end Chris Gragg are both 6-3 and so is junior college transfer Demetrius Wilson. Mitchell, at 6-4, isn't even the tallest with Mekale McKay standing 6-6. Six-foot-two Keon Hatcher and 6-1 Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon aren’t exactly shrimps, either. It should be more difficult for Alabama defenders to intimidate Arkansas’ pass-catching corps this season than in the past. This appears to be the tallest, most physical and most athletic group of receivers Arkansas has ever trotted out on the field. However, all of them are basically unproven in game situations except for Hamilton and Gragg, but, man, do they pass the eye test.
*The Hogs’ defensive backs and linebackers all appeared more alert and active in pass defense than in recent years in the scrimmage, breaking on the ball and slapping a number of passes down. However, after two weeks of practice, the defenders should know the plays about as well as their offensive counterparts. Play and tendency recognition won’t be as easy once the games begin, but it was still nice to see some aggressiveness where it had been absent in recent years.
*Perhaps the best thing I noticed in the scrimmage was that the defensive front got better penetration than in recent years. I'm unsure if it’s because the players are maturing or if it’s new techniques, stunts or schemes taught by first-year defensive coordinator Paul Haynes and first-year defensive line coach Kevin Peoples. Whatever it was there did appear to be a welcome difference. It would be nice to see Razorback linebackers filling holes instead making tackles from behind this season, and that has a lot to do with penetration.
*Tevin Mitchel (6-0, 192) had a fine freshman season for the Hogs, earning All-SEC Freshman honors and becoming a starter in the Hogs' final six games, and Saturday, he looked poised for an outstanding sophomore season. Cobi Hamilton is a proven SEC performer. His ability is unquestioned. But Mitchel confounded and frustrated Hamilton on four of six plays Saturday in which I focused on the matchup. That’s good news for the Razorbacks. That competition should make both Hogs better.
*Again take this with a grain of salt, but Arkansas’ relative weaknesses appear to be the line on offense and the safeties on defense. A healthy return by junior Eric Bennett (6-0, 206) should go a long way in helping shore up the Hogs’ back end, but safety is a spot where the Hogs seem very thin. Arkansas’ starting offensive front appeared solid in the scrimmage, certainly more so than a year ago at this time, but not dominating. The Razorbacks are so gifted at the skill positions, it may not matter against most teams. But again, that’s hard to judge.
*It will be interesting to note at practice this week if the squad is split into varsity and scout units or if the staff will have the team go another week without them. If there is a scout team today, it would mean the coaches are fairly set on which players can help them this season. If not it will mean they are still searching for players to fill roles. It’s not necessarily a good or bad sign either way. It’s just a marker of where the coaches believe the team is at this moment. With two warm-up games before Alabama, the coaches don’t want the team peaking too fast. There is time.
*While I would like to see Knile Davis run the ball as much as anyone else at this Saturday’s scrimmage, I hope he doesn’t see full contact until the season opener against Jackson State. With Davis’ history of odd injuries, I’m for the play-it-safe method. He’s a proven SEC performer. He knows what it’s like to be hit by Alabama and LSU, and he has nothing to prove in practice. Defenders are reportedly striking him in drills, just not taking him to the ground, and ball security hasn’t been an issue with him in the past. It's not only prudent but smart to hold him back.