Spotlight not too big for Arkansas true freshmen Stromberg, Soli, more
When Arkansas signed its highest ranked class in a decade, the pitch was to come in and earn the right to play as true freshmen. True to its word, the Razorback coaching staff has played 10 true freshmen in the first two games of the season.
Though some have come in sparingly, like former 4-stars safety Jalen Catalon, corner Devin Bush and defensive tackle Marcus Miller, others have already been called upon to play very significant snaps.
We had a spotlight on Arkansas's two true freshmen starters at wide receiver last week and they proved once again versus Ole Miss that the spotlight is not too big. Everyone expected Trey Knox and Treylon Burks to come in and be exceptional right away, the injuries to junior Jordan Jones and senior Deon Stewart simply expedited their rise.
Unlike Burks and Knox, the latter of whom was named Arkansas's player of the game for his six reception, 88-yard performance, Tulsa native Ricky Stromberg was not pegged to start this early after arriving in Fayetteville underweight due to illness.
Stromberg was down 14 pounds from his signing day weight and at 266, most assumed he'd be forced to redshirt before contributing. Now, the true freshman is fluctuating between 277 and 280 pounds, and he's still the lightest offensive lineman on the roster. However, standing at 6-foot-4, Stromberg's relative strength is immense and his athleticism allows him to compete with SEC tackles and ends anyways.
One of the latest commitments of the early 2019 signing class, Stromberg was called to step up in the absence of injured senior and former defensive lineman Austin Capps.
Despite filling in for Capps who carries roughly 35 pounds more than the freshman and has 255 more offensive snaps, Stromberg performed admirably at left guard and was graded Arkansas's second-best lineman in week two after playing every single down. Stromberg posted an 84.4 in pass protection, a score only posted by the likes of NFL players/prospects Hjalte Froholt, Brian Wallace and Johnny Gibson Jr. a handful of times in 2018.
"We say all the time to earn playing time in a game you’ve got to earn it in practice," Craddock said. "He’s the epitome of that. He’s worked his butt off and had a really good training camp, earned that spot.
"We told him he’s going to start on the road in the SEC and he’s like ‘Okay.’ It didn’t really faze him. So we felt really, really confident putting him in there. He did really, really well."
That's not to claim Stromberg was perfect, like two of his more veteran teammates he scored below 60 in run blocking, but head coach Chad Morris was very pleased with his overall performance.
"I thought Ricky played really well," Morris said Monday after the loss. "We missed a call late in the game that allowed penetration to come right over the top of him for a TFL, but I thought he played really well. I’m excited about him."
With Stromberg performing well and Capps due to return to the field for Colorado State, it wouldn't be crazy think Dustin Fry might try moving Myron Cunningham to left tackle and either Capps or Stromberg to right guard to have them both on the field.
However, Colton Jackson did post the highest run blocking grade so it could hurt the run game to take him off the field. Watching the movement on the offensive line will be interesting on Saturday afternoon as Stromberg has clearly earned some more snaps.
Arkansas was also able to get three true freshmen defensive ends into the game in week two, all three getting significant snaps.
Mataio Soli, son of Junior Soli, one of two Razorback legacies bookending the defensive line, made his first start on Saturday and played 53 hard-earned snaps with a fractured right hand that he sustained after 30 reps in game one. Soli was one of the most sound tacklers of the game but, like the whole defensive line Saturday, he struggled to get pressure on the quarterback. He was credited with two tackles and a quarterback hit.
The Georgia native and former 4-star got the start due to injuries to seniors Dorian Gerald, out for the season, and Jamario Bell who is likely out for another week according to the staff.
Providing much-needed depth for Soli and fellow starter Gabe Richardson were former 4-star Collin Clay and the other legacy, son of Ricky Williams, Zach Williams. Williams played sparingly in week one and came in on 23 snaps for Richardson on the left side while Clay got his first start against Ole Miss and played 28 snaps. Clay didn't put up any stats while he was on the field but Williams had three tackles.
With or without stats, the experience the true freshmen are getting is going to be very valuable in the future and it sounds like there's going to be plenty more opportunities this season.
"I thought Zach Williams gives us some speed off the edge, I thought he did some really good things," Morris said. "Soli is very powerful, going to have a great career. Collin Clay is a force. Just getting these young guys the experience they need to get to continue to grow, we’ve got to grow them up, that’s on us as coaches to do."
The final true freshman that got significant reps was starting nickel Gregory Brooks Jr. Despite not grading out well by ProFootballFocus's standards, the defense's worst-graded player in week two, there was not one iota of quit in the Louisiana native who played 99 percent of the defensive downs.
Ole Miss continually went after him and managed to get eight receptions out of the 10 times he was targeted. He's the team's most talented option at nickel, so all the coaches can do right now is have patience, continue to give him experience and hope he learns and develops quickly.