FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas running back Knile Davis was concerned about fumbling the football in last Saturday’s season opener.
Davis hadn’t been hit in a game in more than a year, after all, sitting out the 2011 season with an injury. So the likelihood of having the ball jarred out of his hands in his first game since the 2011 Sugar Bowl was pretty high against Jacksonville State.
“I emphasized holding onto that ball,” Davis said. “I kind of was worried about it a little bit not being hit in such a long time.”
It worked for Davis, who didn’t fumble the football in 18 carries last Saturday.
His teammates couldn’t say the same, though.
While Arkansas’ offense enjoyed a strong debut in the 49-24 win against the Gamecocks, there was one obvious blemish. Three fumbles nearly overshadowed a 564-yard, seven-touchdown performance from the high-powered group.
It’s an area the Razorbacks addressed after the game, saying the mistakes must be eliminated. It’s something they’ll concentrate on in practice field this week, too, as Arkansas prepares to play Louisiana-Monroe in Little Rock at 6 p.m. Saturday.
“We have to do a better job of that,” Arkansas coach John L. Smith said. “Those kids understand that. We’re going to make an effort to work on that in practice as well.”
Losing a fumble here or there happens in football, but three in one game has been pretty rare for the Razorbacks. In fact, the last time they lost three or more in a game came in the 38-7 loss to Missouri in the 2008 Cotton Bowl. Arkansas lost four fumbles that day under interim coach Reggie Herring, who led the team in the transition period between former coaches Houston Nutt and Bobby Petrino.
Arkansas lost two fumbles on several occasions under Petrino. Never three.
The first came Saturday came on the opener drive, when quarterback Tyler Wilson said the ball slipped out of his hands as he tried to elude pass rushers. Jacksonville State couldn’t capitalize on the ensuing 49-yard fumble return, though, having a field goal blocked by defensive tackle Byran Jones to keep the game scoreless.
A fumble did lead to points two drives later. Tight end Chris Gragg had the ball stripped out of his hands fighting for yards after a catch. Jacksonville State scored a touchdown four plays later, taking a 14-7 lead early into the second quarter.
“Just trying to do a little bit too much,” Gragg said. “When I’m doing that, that’s just how I know how to run, just put two hands on the ball and protect it better.”
Smith was asked Monday if the fumbles were primarily the result of Jacksonville State placing an emphasis on ripping the ball out of players’ hands. He said that wasn’t the case, placing the blame squarely on his players who lost fumbles.
“We don’t allow us to get away, I guess, with the excuse they were stripped,” Smith said. “We dropped the ball. We have to do a better job of securing it.
“So, from that standpoint, that’s our fault in not securing it, not working on ball security enough. They’re all caused by something.”
So Smith said the Razorbacks intend to spend extra time on ball security during practices this week to help correct the problems. He said the scout team, especially, will be asked to concentrate on stripping the ball out on the practice field this week as Arkansas prepares for its next test against Louisiana-Monroe.
Davis said the Razorbacks aren’t happy about the fumbles in the season opener, realizing the mistakes erased other opportunities for points. But he said Arkansas isn’t discouraged by the mistakes as they press forward.
“When you have fumbles in the first game, that’s not unusual,” Davis said. “That’s actually calming. The game speed is different from practice speed. Game hits are different from practice hits. So it’s a little different. But that’s something we need to improve on. From this game forward, I don’t expect the ball to be on the ground.”