FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas cornerback Will Hines felt like he was playing the best football of his career at Florida on Oct. 5.
That’s what made the collision that resulted in a broken wrist, an injury that put Hines on the sidelines for the next four games, so frustrating.
“I was getting better every game,” Hines said. “I still feel like I am up there at the same level I was. But I just have got to prove it.”
The good news for the sophomore — and Arkansas — is that it appears he’ll be able to get that opportunity on Saturday, when the Razorbacks (3-7, 0-6 in SEC) play Mississippi State (4-6, 1-5 in SEC) in Little Rock.
The Waco, Texas, native has shown progress on the practice field the past two weeks and coach Bret Bielema said there’s a chance to return to his starting spot, helping the Razorbacks find solutions to the cornerback quandary.
“I was very intrigued with what I saw on film,” Bielema said about Hines’ performance in practice. “He’s competing. A lot of times when you have a kid that goes through a bone fracture, they become timid. That’s not been the case at all with him. He’s been very aggressive. Not afraid to put his hands in there, his arms.
“I’ve been very, very pleased with his progress and has been actually 100 percent cleared. So depending on how he handles (this) week could be whether or not he starts or his amount of playing time.”
Hines’ return – in any capacity – could be a lift for the Razorbacks. Arkansas’ six SEC opponents are completing 72.8 percent of their passes with 16 touchdowns with just 2 interceptions against the Razorbacks. They’re averaging 9.5 yards an attempt, too, and piling up 250.3 passing yards a game.
Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace was the last to enjoy success, shredding Arkansas for career-high 416 yards with 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions on Nov. 9. It included 75- and 52-yard touchdown passes in the second half, which broke open a tight game.
Cornerback Tevin Mitchel has been responsible for some of the biggest mistakes in the secondary, which have led to several big plays for opponents. His struggles have caused the Razorbacks to re-evaluate options at the position, looking at a group that includes Carroll Washington, D.J. Dean, Jared Collins and, now, Hines.
“We’re trying to find an answer, truing to find a solution to the problems that we’ve had,” Ash said last week. “Right now we’re still trying to work through that.”
Mitchel — who has 47 tackles and an interception returned for a touchdown at Rutgers — has started every game this season and 15 straight dating back to 2012.
But his struggles have been detrimental to the defense. He misplayed the ball on what proved to be an 88-yard touchdown pass in the Auburn loss. Mitchel also missed a tackle that resulted in a 52-yard touchdown at Ole Miss.
Ash said Mitchel has been thinking too much instead of simply making plays.
“When you watch some of the tackles he’s missed, I think he’s unsure about what he wants to do,” Ash said. “Is he going to try to cut out their legs? Is he going to take them high? What is he going to do in that situation? And when you think like that on the football field, you paralyze yourself, and you put yourself in a bad position.”
But Bielema said Mitchel was “really challenged” in practice last week and responded with some of his best work of the season. It’s not clear if he’ll remain in a starting role for Saturday’s game or if he’ll be replaced by one of the other corners.
Dean is one candidate after being eased into the rotation much of the year. He started the season as one of Arkansas’ nickel backs and his role has slowly grown.
Ash said Dean still unsure about what he’s doing on every snap, which isn’t unusual for a freshman. But said Dean isn’t afraid of contact. Or the competition.
“We just are all competing,” Dean said when asked about the race for starting jobs the last two weeks of the season. “Whoever does the best gets the job.”
Washington has started four straight games in Hines’ absence on the other side, while Collins has helped in a reserve role after missing one game because of a concussion earlier this season. Ash said they haven’t been tested as often as Mitchel.
“Unfortunately, Tevin hasn’t made the ones that he needs to or we need him to on game day,” Ash said. “But they’ve consistently been in the right spot, and as long as they can do that, then we have a chance.”
Arkansas is optimistic its performance will improve if Hines — who has 22 tackles and an interception in six games — can return to form.
The sophomore said last week he has been lifting weights and hasn’t felt any pain in contact work during practices. The Arkansas staff will determine how much he plays against Mississippi State. But Hines said he is eager to get back on the field.
“I had never sat out that many games before,” Hines said. “It was something new I had to adjust to. I had to stay positive. Everybody had to stay positive.”
Hines can’t cure Arkansas’ cornerback woes alone. But the Razorbacks remain hopeful his return will lead to improvement at a position that has struggled.
“He’s missed a lot of football, a lot of practice,” Ash said. “We’ll see if he can knock off the rust to be able to go out there and give us a winning performance Saturday.”