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Arkansas Razorbacks Spring Game Success Comes With Cost

Arkansas Razorbacks
© Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

American poet Dorothy Parker once said, "Every year, back comes Spring, with nasty little birds yapping their fool heads off and the ground all mucked up with plants.”

For some, spring is a drag. Allergies run rampant, black cars acquire a slightly yellowed hue, you're teased with false summer in the afternoons and reminded of the bleak winter each morning.

For others, spring means college football is one season closer to returning.

Like most FBS schools, the Arkansas Razorbacks hosted their annual spring game two Saturdays ago in front of several thousand faithful fans who had to have been pleased with the obvious team improvement they saw. Yet, that improvement does come at a cost. A handful of players who saw little action or success in the spring game jumped in the portal following the the Razorbacks' spring game.

Razorbacks showcase new talent

Following 15 practices during the allotted 34-day window, Arkansas began to learn, build and execute its new offensive attack. All 12 players that transferred into the program during the winter portal window saw action at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on April 13, with many playing vital roles in the team's good showing.

Former Boise State signal caller Taylen Green put to rest murmurs that have been critical of his passing ability with a commendable showing. Green posted a 77 percent completion rate on the day, completing 17-of-22 of his passes. His precision in the red zone led to two eye-popping scoring strikes in the first quarter. Green finished his day with 243 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Utah transfer running back Ja'Quinden Jackson, who posted more than 1,400 all-purpose yards in three seasons with the Utes, had a solid performance in the spring game. The Dallas native scored 3 touchdowns on his own, one from a 15-yard pass and two more on the ground.

Tight end Luke Hasz appeared to be at full strength and back in his element using his unique combination of size, speed and ball skills to haul in two key passes that resulted in first downs. He finished with 2 receptions for 52 yards and showed improved technique as a blocker. Wide receivers Tyrone Broden and Andrew Armstrong also accounted for 60 and 52 yards, respectively, and both players scored highlight reel touchdowns.

Some young guns also made great plays for the Hogs. Freshman running back and Benton, Ark., native Braylen Russell gained a plethora of experience in short-yardage situations. Known for breaking tackles, his prowess was on full display when he broke loose for a 32-yard score in the third quarter.

Freshman wide receiver C.J. Brown—from just down Interstate 49 in Bentonville—showed off his elite speed and elusiveness after taking a short pass from Malachi Singleton 75 yards to the house. The play unfortunately occurred during a television break, but Brown finished the day as the game's leading receiver, earning 109 yards on 5 receptions.

Defensively, the first-team unit was dominant against the second-string offense. Sophomore linebacker Brad Spence was expected to lock down one of the starting spots heading into spring camp, and his performance solidified that notion. He ended his one half of play with 3 tackles for loss and 1 sack to his name.

Albany transfer defensive lineman Anton Juncaj made his presence known on the second-team defensive unit with 2 sacks on the afternoon.

Freshman defensive back Ahkhari Johnson logged 3 tackles on the day and made a great break on the ball to haul in an interception near the sideline. Johnson wasn't the only freshman defensive back to have a good showing as Selman Bridges responded from giving up a touchdown to Armstrong in man coverage earlier in the scrimmage by racking up 5 total tackles on the day. DB Jaden Allen also ended his day with 5tackles.

Although it is far too early to write the book on this team yet, based on the execution for both starting units, the Razorbacks will be an exciting and competitive team at the mercy of another brutal Southeastern Conference schedule. Improvement was noticeable along the offensive line and at quarterback. Several young players showed out and let their position coaches know they were not ready to be written off or redshirted.

The full stats of the scrimmage can be found here. 

The give and take of the transfer portal

The fallout of any spring scrimmage in today's world of college football results in seemingly a quarter of FBS players opting to take the transfer portal route, instead of taking their lumps as a second- or third-string player.

This same scenario was unavoidable in Fayetteville. The Wednesday following the spring game the transfer portal was open and the Hogs immediately took key hits to their depth chart. Former four-star running back Isaiah Augustave was the first to go. Many rabid Razorback fans were stung by Augustave's departure, as they had seen him as the back of the future. His production last season amounted to 202 rushing yards on 35 carries, adding a score in one of the 11 games he appeared in.

According to coach Sam Pittman, offensive tackle Andrew Chamblee had reportedly stepped away from football earlier this winter. Then, a series of cryptic tweets sparked intrigue as Chamblee posted his trophy denoting his honors as first-team freshman All-SEC in 2023. He officially entered the portal last Tuesday once it opened. The loss of his former offensive line coach Cody Kennedy to Mississippi State likely contributed to his departure.

Morrilton's native son, Jacolby Criswell, played a backup quarterback role for the Hogs last season, and many thought QB guru Bobby Petrino could harness his raw ability into something special. Criswell was relegated to third-team reps after the emergence of Malachi Singleton as QB2 and Green's electric arrival. Criswell likely saw the writing on the wall and announced his entrance into the portal on Wednesday. Criswell threw for 143 yards and 3 touchdowns during his lone season as a Razorback.

Arkansas Razorbacks
© Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The Razorbacks also lost redshirt freshman interior offensive lineman and former four-star Paris Patterson and senior defensive end Jashaud Stewart. Patterson's redshirt status was preserved in 2023 and he never saw the field in his time at Arkansas.

During his four years in Fayetteville, Stewart had carved out a good role along the defensive line, starting 7 games and appearing in 36.

Going into 2023, Stewart was expected to become a mainstay on the defensive line. However, an injury-plagued campaign and legal trouble involving first-degree criminal mischief and residential burglary charges derailed hopes of a breakout season.

The Jonesboro native was suspended indefinitely due to his criminal activity and had not been with the team since December. Stewart made 28 tackles and had 2.5 sacks during his Razorback career.

One of the more surprising entries into the portal from the Arkansas roster was punter Max Fletcher from Melbourne in Victoria, Australia. While on campus, Fletcher was a commendable punter for the Hogs. He beat out Reid Bauer for the job in 2022 and never looked back. The Aussie had to punt to Razorback opponents 59 times in 2023 for over 2,700 yards; the 11th-highest total in the FBS last year.

Fletcher is currently the only Razorback in this series of players transferring out who has already found a new home. That spot likely feels more like home since he chose to join his brother and fellow punter, Mason Fletcher at the University of Cincinnati.

Lorando "Snaxx" Johnson became an immediate fan-favorite last season after transferring in from Baylor and chirping Missouri fans on X. Johnson announced on Monday that he also intended to transfer. Johnson started all 12 games for the Hogs last fall, playing as a nickel defender and covering the back half at safety. His 2023 campaign resulted in 29 total tackles including 4 tackles for a loss and 1 sack. The redshirt senior also had a pick-six against Texas A&M last fall.

No Need for Panic

Subtractions from the roster don't arrive without panic from fans not adjusted to the flexibility college football players have today. It is important to note, that of the seven players that have entered the portal so far, only three made valuable contributions to the team's production and success last season—Chamblee, Augustave and Johnson. Fletcher punted well but often lacked the consistency needed to make punts that flipped the field and gave the defense better positioning.

None of the players that transferred made an impact on the spring game, Fletcher was out kicked by each of the other two punters on the roster. Augustave could only muster 7 total yards on 7 carries and 2 receptions. Johnson did make 4 tackles but was getting reps with the second-team defense.

There is no shortage of reasons why players choose to transfer. Being closer to home and family, better opportunities for playing time, dropping down to lower competition, coaching changes, entitlement, apathy, and of course NIL could all be to blame.

Recouping losses

While it hurts to lose players who wore Razorback red, in this era of college sports, getting attached to players is a practice for only those foolhardy enough to believe they will all stick around. Sifting through the thousands of entries to find what other programs considered "trash" that could end up being treasured. The group hitting the road out of town was not filled with potential first-team conference selections or truly impactful players, but the depth takes a big hit along the secondary and offensive line.

Arkansas recouped a few of their losses this past weekend by gaining commitments from linebacker Larry Worth from Jacksonville State and running back Rodney Hill from Florida State. Worth hails from Jacksonville, Fla., and comes to the Hogs with two remaining seasons of eligibility. The former JSU Gamecock recorded 63 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 4 sacks and a forced fumble in 2023. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Worth brings versatility and more experience for the Razorbacks at a spot where they are very young.

Rodney Hill has had an erratic path in the portal since he decided to leave the Seminole program in December. Hill originally set his sights on becoming a Rattler for Flordia A&M. Once former FAMU head coach Willie Simmons left for Duke, Hill hit the portal again, opting to stay in the Sunshine State, committing to the University of Miami.

Hill never enrolled at Miami and was allowed to portal once more. Now it appears the Seminole's third-leading rusher last season is focused on producing in the SEC. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound junior has two seasons under his belt in Tallahassee, accumulating 77 carries for 334 yards and 2 TDs.

Arkansas Razorbacks
© Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Changing Hype Into Reality

Expect Arkansas to continue working the portal and put the mass exodus is behind them. The Razorbacks put on a solid display during their 2024 spring game and the hype is starting to trend upward. Arkansas plans to pursue a handful more players in the portal to balance the numbers for each position. Pittman has mentioned the need for players at wideout and along both lines will be a focal point this portal period.

Fall camp inches closer with each passing day and the Razorbacks are eager to change the hype into reality, surpassing the multiple expectations for them to finish in the bottom half of the league. Transfers come and transfers go, but the Razorback brand is still strong and the team appears to be operating far more cohesively than this period last season.

The Razorbacks kick off their 2024 season on Aug. 29 against the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff at their "home away from home," War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.


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