LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (THV11) – Outside of the 2008 season, it’s hard to recall seeing more Razorback freshmen being thrown into the frying pan of a season opening game, even against a Football Championship Subdivision foe, than what Arkansas fans witnessed Thursday night in the Hogs’ expected 49-7 win over Florida A&M University at two-thirds full War Memorial Stadium.
Bobby Petrino put several freshman in key roles, including the opening kickoff that was immediately fumbled, in his scary debut win over FCS Western Illinois in 2008. Fans who continued to trot out “Remember The Citadel” when warning each other not to overlook FAMU this week seemed to forget Petrino’s opening win came in the final moments, 28-24.
Playing so many freshmen can lead to that kind of outcome. It only helped Bret Bielema’s fifth edition or Razorbacks, though, because enough of these yearlings and redshirt freshmen had enough experience surrounding them, led by senior quarterback Austin Allen and senior center Frank Ragnow, who lined up next to surprise starter Tyler Clary, a true freshman, at right guard.
It was only a surprise to the media and the 36,055 fans in the stadium and an SEC TV audience, though. Bielema said it had been decided before this week, a freshman with maybe 2 stars to his name in the expert recruiting services, with only a few lesser scholarship offers like Colorado State, walking on with his hometown college. Suddenly, he’s starting, and shifting another former walk-on now on scholarship, junior Johnny Gibson, to right tackle, and supplanting returning starting tackle Brian Wallace, who was a 4-star recruit out of high school coveted by everyone.
After a few missteps and botched assignments on the Hogs’ first two fruitless series against the Rattlers, Clary settled down – the entire line did, in fact, and began to pound away at the quick but smallish FAMU defense. FAMU was willing to bring a bunch against Arkansas’s passing game, and the Rattlers were quick enough to take away the outside runs. But they weren’t up to slowing down the pulverizing in the middle that grew exponentially as the game wore on.
“I thought [Clary] did a really good job. First game as a college football player, starting as a true freshmen, he did about as good as you’d expect. He exceeded my expectations which is just how calm he was in the huddle, how he was making his calls, getting on the right guys and playing really, really hard. That’s what he’s been showing all fall camp and he’s going to be a really special player,” quarterback Allen said in the media interview room afterward.
Those blocks from Clary and the older guys up front opened space for true freshmen Chase Hayden, part of a three-headed running back by committee (also including sophomore Devway Whaley and grad transfer David Williams from South Carolina) that totaled 206 of Arkansas’s 258 rushing yards. Hayden had 120 of them, averaging 8.6 yards per carry.
“He can make a lot of things happen in a small amount of space,” Bielema said of Hayden afterward.
Tennessee, where his dad, Aaron, had forged an outstanding college career as a running back and went on to play professionally, judged Hayden defensive back material but maybe too small (5-feet-11, 191 pounds) for the SEC at running back, or else the Vols had what they considered better targets. Arkansas happily offered what Hayden wanted: a chance to prove them wrong. It remains to be seen how his shiftiness will correlate against SEC talent, but against FAMU, he stood out.
Most observers of his high school career, as outstanding as it was, wondered how good he really since he played against perceived weak, small private school competition in western Tennessee. Suddenly, now he’s rushing for almost 9 yards a pop against grown men.
“I didn’t expect that. It just shows what the O-line was doing, opening up some big holes,” Hayden said. “It’s a big jump [from high school]. The game is a lot faster, the speed is a lot faster, the blitzes come a lot faster. It’s a big jump and I know a lot of people thought I came from a small school so they didn’t know how that would transfer over. I was trying not to worry about that. I just came in with an open mind, to try to compete and work hard, listen to what the coaches say.”
Allen said, “I think [Hayden] did what he’s been doing the whole fall camp for us, hitting the hole hard, making one cut, jump cuts and things like that, running the ball hard. First game for him and over 100 yards is pretty special.”
Freshmen defensive backs Kamren Curl and Chevin Calloway were part of a rotation with junior college transfer Britto Tutt, who missed all of last year injured in preseason, and played nearly all the second half. Part was by necessity, as junior Ryan Pulley missed the second half with a strained pectoral. Their solid play also gave senior corner Henre Toliver a chance to rest the remainder of the game after he returned a fumble 18 yards to push Arkansas up four scores and remove any doubt that might have existed that the Hogs could be had.
Redshirt freshman Cole Kelley quarterbacked the fourth quarter after Allen was given three periods to shake off any rust from lack of reps this month in practice, Bielema noted later. Kelley responded by guiding the second team 75 yards in 10 plays for the night’s final score, a 7-yard pass to junior tight end Cheyenne O’Grady. Freshman Jordan Jones also played, making it 12 true or redshirt Freshmen played last night.
Arkansas only had two kickoffs to return, but true freshman De’Vion Warren had the better of the two with a 21-yard flash late in the game. Redshirt freshman Jonathan Marshall got a lot of second half action in place of starter McTelvin Agin at defensive end, and walk-on second-year freshman Dylan Hays stuck his 300-pound frame into the fray at nose guard. Redshirt freshman end Briston Guidry was on the field quite a bit in the second half, as was redshirt walk-on freshman Grant Morgan at linebacker and redshirt freshman Dee Walker.
That’s 11 true or redshirt freshmen playing in a season opener, though only one was pushed into a starting role.
Petrino’s 2008 team, his worse squad in his exciting four years as Hog head coach, played 16 true or redshirt freshmen in a 5-7 campaign, one that saw the nation’s top three teams at one point beat the Hogs in succession by a combined 135-31. As most fans can remember, it turned around nicely over the next three years for those youngsters, especially the fantastic receivers like Joe Adams and Jarius Wright.
Arkansas now isn’t as strapped as that 2008 team for skill in the upper classes and doesn’t have to rely on quite as many freshmen. But at first glance, when they needed to step up, several proved ready for the college spotlight. FAMU was the perfect opponent for early indoctrination. TCU on Sept. 9 will give a better indication if they are ready for Power 5 level competition.