Four Downs: Gragg, Bennett Out; O-Line Faces Big Challenge; Hogs Like Mud


FOUR DOWNS – ARKANSAS VS. TEXAS A&M NOTES

1. Two More Starters Out

Arkansas has been dealing with its share of injuries this season.

Two more starters can be added to list for Saturday’s game against Texas A&M.

Arkansas coach John L. Smith said the Razorbacks will be without tight end Chris Gragg and safety Eric Bennett. Gragg suffered a bone bruise during the first half of last week’s loss to Rutgers, while Bennett was limited by an undisclosed injury in practice throughout the week.

The two join cornerback Tevin Mitchel, fullback Kiero Small and running back Kody Walker as injured players who will miss Saturday’s game. Small and Walker are out for the season. Smith said Mitchel remains weeks away from returning.

Gragg’s absence will leave Arkansas leaning on the rest of a relatively inexperienced group of tight ends. Most of the responsibility will fall on junior Austin Tate, while Alex Voelzke and Demetrius Dean should earn some playing time.

“Tate has to step in and play the tight end and he’s been doing that all along,” Smith said. “So he’s going to be fine there. And then if we get out of that situation where we are using a tight end much, some of those other guys are going to have to do that. Some of the wideouts are going to have to carry the load as well.”

None of the three are the same caliber of receiver as Gragg, who is second on the team in receiving (19 catches, 234 yards, 2 touchdowns).

Bennett’s absence will leave a hole in a struggling secondary ranked 111th in the country in passing yards a game (312.2 yards). Smith said sophomore Alan Turner will start in Bennett’s place, while junior Jerry Mitchell will work as his backup.

Smith said running back Dennis Johnson returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday’s workout with a migraine headache. The senior is expected to earn more carries Saturday as Arkansas tries to jumpstart it struggling run game.

2. Tough Test Up Front

The Arkansas offensive line has been shaky in pass protection this season, surrendering seven sacks and allowing opponents to rough up Tyler Wilson.

Keeping Wilson clean won’t be any easier at Texas A&M on Saturday.

The Aggies have piled up 16 sacks in three games, leading the nation in sacks a game (5.3). Texas A&M – led by defensive end Damontre Moore - has been relentless in harassing opposing quarterbacks and its front four has been key to success.

“The front is the strength of their team,” Arkansas guard Alvin Bailey said. “They like to get their hands in the ground and get after the quarterback. They run some stunts and blitzes and things like that. So that is going to be the key to beat them.”

Moore leads the nation in sacks a game (two) and has accounted for six of Texas A&M’s 16 sacks. Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino called Moore a “stud,” who will be a handful for tackles David Hurd, Brey Cook and Jason Peacock.

“We’ve just got to do a good job,” Petrino said. “We’ve got to do everything we can to have different people chipping him and hitting him and coming from different directions to block him. … He causes the most of (the sacks). He either gets them himself or flushes them into other people.”

Arkansas knows keeping Moore and the rest of the Texas A&M defensive line in check will be vital to its hopes of snapping the three-game losing streak.

“They do a good job up front, so it’s got to be a big emphasis,” Petrino said. “If we can get the ball off, then I think we have a good matchup with our skill guys against their secondary. We just have to make sure we protect long enough.”

3. Weather Concerns

The weather report is calling for rain in College Station, Texas, on Saturday, which could have an impact on both teams. But Smith said the Razorbacks will be prepared for mud even though the bulk of its attack has come through the air this season.

“We like mud,” Smith said.

Arkansas, which had eight fumbles the last time it played in wet conditions (52-0 loss to Alabama), has emphasized run game improvement anyway this week. The Hogs are averaging 97.8 rushing yards a game, which ranks 112th in the nation.

“We would like to be able to keep our hands on the football and the more we have it, of course the less chance they have to score,” Smith said. “Hopefully that will be the case and we can be able to run it and maintain ball possession. And knock on wood maybe the rain would lean to that type of game.”

4. Like Joe

Joe Adams turned in plenty of big plays on special teams last season, taking an NCAA-high four punts back for touchdowns. Smith said Texas A&M’s Dustin Harris is just as dangerous and will keep the Razorbacks on their toes Saturday.

“You look at him on film, and at least right now he’s probably the best return guy in the country. Very special,” Smith said. “Does a great job of catching the ball, of course … Guys like that come around and it’s not a matter of coaching, it’s a matter of getting them started and then they have great vision, and great ability.”

Harris set the school and SEC record with 246 punt return yards in last week’s win against South Carolina State. It included a 96-yard punt return for a touchdown, which is the second-longest in school history. Harris leads the SEC and is ranked eighth in the NCAA in punt return yards (20.4 yards an attempt).

“It’s just like Joe was for us a year ago,” Smith said. “He’s a special kid.”

— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau