FAYETTEVILLE — Some were playing out of necessity because of injuries and absences that have ravaged Arkansas’ depth at a few positions.
Some had simply earned opportunities to be more involved in the gameplan after their steady progression the past several weeks.
Whatever it was, the Razorbacks were leaning on plenty of freshmen during their 38-20 loss at South Carolina on Saturday. Three true freshmen started for the Arkansas defense, including first-time starter Otha Peters. Four others played roles at the skill positions on the other side of the ball, trying to help quarterback Tyler Wilson and the rest of the veteran core produce against the Gamecocks’ defense.
The group’s performance wasn’t perfect. They’re freshmen, after all.
But John L. Smith was still impressed.
“I have to compliment a lot of our young guys,” Smith said Monday. “We have a lot of young guys playing now that are stepping up. We’re demanding more, we’re trying to ask every player to give a little bit more and a lot of young guys have done that.”
Arkansas’ youth movement is expected to continue Saturday, when the Razorbacks (4-6, 2-4 in Southeastern Conference) play at Mississippi State (7-3, 3-3 in SEC).
Arkansas isn’t benching veterans like Tyler Wilson, Cobi Hamilton and Dennis Johnson to play youngsters. But there’s no doubt the freshmen class will play a role in Arkansas’ bowl hopes because so many are being asked to help.
It starts on defense, where three true freshmen — Peters, linebacker A.J. Turner and cornerback Will Hines — started against the Gamecocks.
Turner and Hines have been regulars in the lineup the past few weeks, while Peters was on the field for suspended senior Terrell Williams. The three struggled at times against a South Carolina offense that constantly tested them in pass coverage, but defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said they gained experience.
“I commend those guys,” Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith said. “Otha Peters and AJ Turner, they stepped up. We just gave up those big plays. That’s what got us.”
Freshman running back Nate Holmes was much busier than usual, too, after earning the first carries of his career last Saturday. He also handled kickoff and punt return duties before leaving with an injury that leaves him questionable this week.
Receiver Keon Hatcher caught his first pass — a 6-yard touchdown from Wilson in the first quarter — and finished with three receptions for 21 yards. Classmate Mekale McKay, after a quiet few weeks, caught three passes for 49 yards at South Carolina.
“They’re going to be great,” Hamilton said of the freshmen. “Mekale McKay had a few catches. Keon had had a couple of catches. It was good for them. They were getting their feet wet. They made some things happen so this is a good year for them.”
Said offensive coordinator Paul Petrino: “They’ve been improving every day and you kind of thought they would kind of have a breakout.”
The most productive freshman on offensive has been running back Jonathan Williams. He led the Razorbacks with 61 rushing yards against South Carolina, providing a late spark to the ground game with Johnson struggling.
Williams has rushed for 211 yards and has 163 more receiving, catching two touchdowns against Kentucky. Wilson said Williams has impressed in other ways, too, calling the freshman one of the offense’s best leaders despite his youth.
“Jonathan Williams is a guy that I’ve seen step up and he kind of carries himself with a little bit of swagger about him,” Wilson said. “He’s not scared. He’s not a freshman anymore. He carries himself like a veteran, and that’s big to have a guy like that.”
None of the freshmen have been available for comment this week. Arkansas has practiced a policy of not permitting the true freshmen to talk this season.
But Smith said the group is making the most of their experiences on the field as Arkansas aims to keep its bowl hopes alive with a win at Mississippi State.
“There are going to be some young mistakes that we’re going to have to live with,” Smith said about the final two games. “And we’ve got to minimize those and not make them too big, if we can. That’s kind of going to be our concern.”