FAYETTEVILLE — With the SEC encountering technical difficulties on its Wednesday morning Coaches/Media teleconference, Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema made an unscheduled media appearance after Wednesday’s practice otherwise reserved for defensive players and coaches.
Bielema reported on two players, starting quarterback Austin Allen and starting offensive lineman Johnny Gibson, who were both injured during last Saturday’s 48-22 loss at South Carolina, and their availability for Saturday night’s SEC clash at No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
The 30-point underdog Razorbacks (2-3, 0-2 SEC) and the Crimson Tide (6-0, 3-0 SEC) kick off at 6:15 p.m Saturday on ESPN at Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Gibson (knee) is good to go, Bielema said, and is optimistic that Allen (throwing shoulder) will be, too, though “he’s not there yet.”
Bielema said the staff “held our breaths” pending Sunday night’s MRI showing no structural damage to Allen’s shoulder and that Allen has gradually increased a limited practice routine Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Just a little stiff and sore at the beginning of the week but he’s out there,” Bielema said.
Bielema said he’s “optimistic” but not yet assured that Allen will start.
“Obviously as a quarterback the biggest thing you have to do is function and throw the football,” Bielema said. "If he’s as good as he was going into last week he for sure would. But he’s not quite there yet. I think a lot depends on how well he recovers from tonight (Wednesday’s practice) and we’ll look at that tomorrow (Thursday’s practice). We know we have to protect Austin better.”
The Hogs can ill-afford Allen or backup Cole Kelley, the redshirt freshman who will start if Allen doesn’t, absorbing a pounding from the Tide that Allen has taken thus far this season.
Kelley and last year’s backup and current No. 3 quarterback, third-year sophomore Ty Storey of Charleston, have gotten more work this week with Allen limited.
“It was good for Cole to get out there and I think Ty Storey has had a good couple of weeks during the bye week and everything else,” Bielema said. “He’s a guy that probably manages and handles the game a little more like Austin as far as game-plan wise. Different from Cole. So whoever is out there will get their chance but I feel good about them.”
Regarding fourth-year junior Gibson of Dumas, a starting right tackle early this season when freshman Ty Clary started at right guard, and recently the starting right guard while junior college transfer Paul Ramirez starts at right tackle, Bielema said, “Johnny looks good. Did everything out there today. I don’t expect any problems or issues with him. He’s been in the training room and it paid off today. He had a good practice. A really spirited practice.”
Partly because Alabama alternates four tailbacks, which keeps any from amassing SEC leading stats, and partly because he’s a great runner, quarterback Jalen Hurts leads the 6-0 Tide in rushing at 69 carries for 557 yards with 5 touchdowns, while completing 63 percent of his passes, 70 for 111 for 870 yards and 7 touchdowns without an interception.
Hurts’ run-pass dual threat creates “big-time” stress on his linebackers, Arkansas inside linebacker coach Vernon Hargreaves said.
“It makes for a tough day,” Hargreaves said. “If it looks like it’s going to become a pass, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to be a pass. So he can beat you and get a first down. Our job playing behind the line is to play the run and the pass. So in addition to tackling those other big jokers out there we have got to tackle him, too.”
Are Hurts’ runs more by design or scrambles?
“Combination of both,” Hargreaves said. “They have a package for him where it is designed runs and some of them are when everything breaks down and he gets the first down on his own. Those are the ones that get you. Because you feel you’ve got everything covered and then he goes and gets the first down anyway.”
Running quarterbacks devastated Arkansas’ 4-3 defense last season but it seems with this year’s 3-4 defense installed by defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads that the Razorbacks have better defensed mobile quarterbacks thus far.
“How we are deployed with the defenses that we play gives us more eyes and allows us to have more people ho can get him on the ground,” Hargreaves said. “The kid at Texas A&M (Aggies quarterback Kenny Hill) got away from us one time but other than that we were pretty good.”
Arkansas sophomore defensive end McTelvin “Sosa” Agim said Hurts has morphed from freshman flash to a savvier, swifter sophomore strong arm.
“His arm has gotten better," Agim said. “He knows when to take off and run with it. He knows when to sit in the pocket better now. His legs have gotten better. He looks like he's faster this year. I feel like overall he's just become a better football player. He's like Joe Cool back there. He's just calm the whole time.”