FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ preseason camp became injury-filled after coach Bret Bielema provided a week two update on Saturday night.
Several starters already were missing when the Razorbacks offered their lone peek through the practice gates during a scrimmage on Aug. 10. None of those injuries were considered severe. But that changed with the news wide receiver Demetrius Wilson, linebacker Otha Peters and tight end Austin Tate were going to miss significant time because of injuries suffered on the practice field last week.
The mounting problems didn’t seem to discourage Bielema on Saturday night.
Instead, he said the absences are helping the Hogs build depth this month.
“I think that we’ve established a lot better depth than I could ever have imagined at the beginning of fall camp just because of some of our injury situations,” Bielema said Saturday night.
Arkansas will find out if it pays off in less than two weeks, when the Razorbacks open the season against Louisiana-Lafayette on Aug. 31. For now, they move into the third week of preseason camp trying to fill voids left by injured players.
Clearly, wide receiver has been the position most affected by the injury bug after two weeks of drills. The group opened preseason practice missing one key ingredient in Mekale McKay, who has transferred to Cincinnati. Now Wilson, who is one of three seniors on the roster this season, is out for the season.
Sophomore Keon Hatcher has missed work as well with an unknown injury, while Bielema also revealed Javontee Herndon has been sidelined. Wilson’s injury is the only severe one in the receiving corps, according to Bielema.
But the absences have placed more responsibility on younger receivers like D’Arthur Cowan, Eric Hawkins, Drew Morgan and Melvinson Hartfield.
Bielema said his two freshmen – Morgan and Hartfield – performed well in Saturday’s scrimmage. Video of the scrimmage showed Hartfield catching a touchdown pass, while Bielema estimated that Morgan led the team in receiving.
“He’s definitely adding depth,” Arkansas receivers coach Michael Smith said about Morgan early last week. “He’s a kid that’s conscientious. Another one that I’m just trying to get him to learn the offense as fast as possible because if coach Bielema said he wants him to play, I’ve got to get him ready. And that’s my goal.”
Peters figured to play an important role in Arkansas’ plans at linebacker after starting three games as a true freshman. He wasn’t with the starting unit, but had been enjoying a solid preseason camp before his injury, according to coaches.
The sophomore was working as an outside linebacker spot with the second-team defense early in the preseason, but had recently moved to the middle to back up starter Austin Jones. But position coach Randy Shannon has said several times he’s not fixated on a depth chart because of the possibility of injuries.
“Until the first game of the season, that week of the game, there's never really a depth chart,” Shannon said. “I know that's the hardest thing to buy in, but that's really the true answer. … I've had guys go down on Thursday. Then you have to switch that depth chart around. That's just a starting point.”
So for now, Daunte Carr — who was listed No. 1 on the depth chart at middle linebacker after spring drills — and Robert Atiga will get more reps at middle linebacker. But Bielema said others could be shuffled around to help at the spot.
“Austin Jones has really taken control of that position,” Bielema said. “He’ll be our starting Mike. But Daunte and Atiga will get some reps I think also. What we can also do is look at what we have done in the past is (Jarrett) Lake, Brooks Ellis also play mike linebackers. So we’ll let that kind of pan out over the next two weeks.”
Arkansas felt good about its depth at tight end when preseason practice began. In fact, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said the group probably “has more depth than any other position on the offense.”
Tate’s absence will test the theory. The senior was the most experienced member of the group even though Mitchell Loewen has been working in the first-team spot. His absence — while not expected to last more than six weeks — will place more responsibility on Hunter Henry, Jeremy Sprinkle and Alex Voelzke.
“Austin was kind of the jack of all trades, so it's got to be absorbed by all of them,” Bielema said. “Hunter Hunter, Jeremy Sprinkle, Voelzke's had a great couple days of practice. So those three guys together will kind of consume what Austin brings to the table, and then we'll welcome Austin back when he gets here.”
That has been the case with a few starters who missed the first preseason scrimmage earlier this month. Center Luke Charpentier (replacing Travis Swanson), fullback Patrick Arinze (replacing Kiero Small), TQ Coleman (replacing Rohan Gaines) and DeMarcus Hodge (replacing Byran Jones) all performed well after moving up to the first-team because of first-week injuries.
There’s no doubt the next wave of injuries will test Arkansas’ depth even more.
But Bielema remains confident the Razorbacks will be ready for the opener.
“Didn’t have a lot of significant injuries, season ending,” Bielema said about the first two weeks of preseason camp. “But there has been a lot of guys that might miss some time here and there and it has really built depth.”
Who’s Filling In?
Arkansas’ preseason camp has been loaded with injuries – both minor and significant — to players on the two-deep depth chart. All but one practice has been closed to the public. But below is a look at players who are known to have missed practice time and those who have filled in or will get the chance the next two weeks:
Injured: Demetrius Wilson (Our with torn ACL), Javontee Herndon, Keon Hatcher
Filling In: Drew Morgan, Melvinson Hartfield, Brian Buehner (former QB)
Injured: Kiero Small (Missed 8/10 scrimmage with foot injury)
Filled In: Patrick Arinze
Injured: Austin Tate (Out 4 to 6 weeks with shoulder injury)
Filling In: Hunter Henry, Alex Voelzke, Jeremy Sprinkle
Injured: Travis Swanson (Missed 8/10 scrimmage with groin injury)
Filled In: Luke Charpentier
Injured: Byran Jones (Missed 8/10 scrimmage with foot injury)
Filled In: DeMarcus Hodge
Injured: Otha Peters (Out 6 to 8 weeks with broken arm)
Filling In: Daunte Carr, Robert Atiga
Injured: Rohan Gaines (Missed 8/10 scrimmage with knee injury)
Filled In: TQ Coleman