FAYETTEVILLE — John L. Smith’s positive outlook has never wavered this season, even as Arkansas’ preseason hopes crumbled under the weight of a four-game losing streak.
The Razorbacks coach’s eternal optimism spread to his players on Monday, two days following the team’s streak-snapping 24-7 win over Auburn.
A win, any win, was exactly what Arkansas (2-4, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) needed in the worst way. That it was the Razorbacks’ first this season against an FBS opponent didn’t matter in the least for a team that’s fallen from the preseason top 10 to one just hoping to earn a bowl berth.
“You kind of see that belief back in people’s eyes,” quarterback Tyler Wilson said.
That belief came in the face of more disheartening news: Smith said leading tackler Alonzo Highsmith is out for the season with a foot injury sustained against the Tigers, another blow to an already thin linebacker corps.
Highsmith, who began the season at outside linebacker, leads the Razorbacks with 54 tackles. He was moved to middle linebacker two weeks ago after Tenarius Wright, who missed the Auburn game with a shoulder injury, was moved back to his natural position of defensive end.
Smith said Wright was set to have an MRI late Monday to determine his status for this week’s game against Kentucky (1-5, 0-3).
“It’s a big blow,” Smith said. “Because you’re without your two middle linebackers that you were hoping to start the season with and continue on with. But it’s just something that we have to do, and I think our football team realizes that. We’ve had to adjust for other guys missing time, and whoever’s there has to step in and play and go make plays.”
The Wildcats enter the week reeling with injuries of their own. Kentucky coach Joker Phillips said Monday that freshman quarterback Patrick Towles will miss Saturday’s game after sustaining a high right ankle sprain last week against Mississippi State.
Arkansas is all-too familiar with injury woes this season. In addition to Highsmith and Wright, the Razorbacks’ secondary has been decimated with injuries to safety Eric Bennett and cornerbacks Tevin Mitchel and Kaelon Kelleybrew. Starting fullback Kiero Small and backup Kody Walker also have been lost for the season with injuries, and tight end Chris Gragg missed the win against Auburn with a bone bruise in his leg.
Despite the setbacks, Smith is now hopeful Arkansas can reel off a different kind of streak — a winning one — and re-enter the bowl picture. It’s a possibility Smith said is “definitely” on his mind, one that starts with this week and is followed by a bye before facing another team that’s winless in the SEC in Mississippi.
“Maybe we can sit back and relax and take a breath and get healthy, or more healthy,” Smith said of the looming bye week. “I don’t know that we can ever get totally healthy.”
For Wilson, the possibility of a winning streak of any kind seemed anything but possible leading into the Auburn game. The Razorbacks had lost their first two conference games to No. 1 Alabama and Texas A&M by a combined score of 110-10, but their much-maligned defense had eight sacks against Auburn.
Wilson was 22 of 29 for 230 yards passing against the Tigers. The senior didn’t throw a touchdown in the game, though he didn’t mind in the least.
“I’ll take that and throw no touchdowns with a win any day of the week,” Wilson said.
More than anything, Wilson said the win was a relief for Arkansas. The Razorbacks returned to practice Sunday evening, doing so with an added bit of motivation.
“It’s like night and day in confidence,” Wilson said. “And everybody’s mind in the locker room, on the plane, wherever you’re at, guys feel better about themselves. Consequently, they practice harder. They have belief in what we’re doing, what we’re trying to accomplish as a team; all that helps you.”