HawgBeat's Preseason Burning Question: Which redshirt freshmen will emerge?
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The status of the 2020 college football season remains perilous as we inch closer to - at least what is scheduled to be - Week 1.
As of this moment, Arkansas is still set to open the Sam Pittman era against Nevada on Sept. 5 in Fayetteville. That could change if the SEC follows the Big Ten’s lead and shifts to a conference-only schedule.
However, for the time being, HawgBeat is treating it as everything is moving forward as planned. That includes the start of NFL-style OTAs - which are essentially walk-through practices - for the Razorbacks on Friday.
Leading up to that date, we’ve been revealing our 10 “burning questions” surrounding Arkansas as it prepares for what everyone hopes to be a fall football season. Finishing off our series…
Which redshirt freshmen will emerge as contributors in 2020?
Arkansas signed arguably its best class of the Rivals era in 2019, bringing in a school-record 13 four-star prospects to help the class rank 20th nationally.
Seven of the 20 high school signees were significant contributors last season and burned their redshirts, but the rest of them will be redshirt freshmen this season. (One of them, T.Q. Jackson, has since transferred.)
The still relatively new redshirt rule gave us a glimpse of most of those players, as all but three appeared in at least one game. With a year under their belts and no need to worry about preserving a redshirt, they’ll be asked to take on larger roles in 2020.
There’s a good chance at least two of the redshirt freshmen find themselves in the starting lineup at the start of the season. Tight end Hudson Henry is the frontrunner in a room that doesn’t have a ton of depth, while safety Jalen Catalon flashed in limited playing time and could fill the hole created by Kamren Curl’s decision to enter the NFL Draft.
However, the Razorbacks are likely going to need more of them to emerge if they’re going to take a step forward in Sam Pittman’s first season as the head coach.
As a quarterback, KJ Jefferson is probably the highest-profile of the group on offense. He started one game and made a handful of plays, enough to excite the fanbase, but he’s still pretty raw. With Feleipe Franks coming in, Jefferson likely won’t be the starter, but he could win the backup job - if he beats out incoming freshman Malik Hornsby.
Three of the four high school offensive linemen Arkansas signed last year also redshirted, even though Beaux Limmer and Brady Latham ended the year listed as backups on the depth chart. (Dylan Rathcke never appeared in a game.) Considering Pittman’s background, there is a lot of optimism that the unit is going to make some strides and that could mean playing time for the young guys.
Most of the attention at the skill positions was focused on Treylon Burks and Trey Knox, rightfully so, but Shamar Nash was also a four-star wide receiver and A’Montae Spivey was a highly regarded running back. Both could have a shot at playing time this year, with Spivey seemingly having a better chance as a potential backup to Rakeem Boyd - but he’d have to beat out Trelon Smith.
Defensively, Devin Bush and Malik Chavis join Catalon in the secondary, which appears to be the most talented position on the team. They’ll be pushing players like Montaric Brown, Jarques McClellion, LaDarrius Bishop, Greg Brooks Jr. and Jerry Jacobs for playing time at cornerback and possibly nickel.
With Xavier Kelly coming in as a graduate transfer, as well as 2019 backups Jonathan Marshall and Isaiah Nichols returning, whether or not redshirt freshmen Marcus Miller, Enoch Jackson Jr. and Taurean Carter get action at defensive tackle could depend on what base defense the Razorbacks run. The same could be said about defensive end Eric Gregory, who looked really good last spring before being hampered by an injury.
Another graduate transfer, Levi Draper from Oklahoma, could have an impact on Zach Zimos. The Razorbacks are thin at linebacker, with Bumper Pool being the only definite starter and former two-star recruits Grant Morgan and Hayden Henry being the most experienced players in the room.
If Draper lives up to his four-star rating out of high school, Arkansas could continue bringing Zimos along slowly. Even if he does, though, there’s still a chance the redshirt freshman could see a dramatic increase in playing time under new defensive coordinator Barry Odom.
HawgBeat's Preseason Burning Questions
10. Which redshirt freshmen will emerge as contributors in 2020?