The Arkansas defensive backs once had depth, but now riddle with injuries.
FAYETTEVILLE — One of the deepest units on the team in the spring suddenly looks more like a MASH unit.
Arkansas cornerback Kevin Richardson will miss the rest of the season after suffering a torn pectoral muscle Saturday against Louisiana Tech. Richardson, a junior and former walk-on, had turned himself into one of the team's three starters at cornerback. He was the primary at nickel, in the slot, inside of Henre' Toliver and Jared Collins.
"I grabbed him, it was a tough day yesterday for players and coaches, just talked about he would watch film with the younger guys, teach and prepare them the right way and do some things during the course of the week with those younger guys I think he'll just naturally do because the way he is with leadership. I told him I expect to get straight As and Bs in the semester and rehab the right way and he'll be off and running the spring," Bielema said.
Richardson is the fourth loss Arkansas has had at the position since the spring. DJ Dean, who was a starter last year, missed all spring with a foot injury and most of the fall dealing with a hamstring. Britto Tutt, a junior-college transfer, was the fourth cornerback but lost for the year after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. Willie Sykes, who was down the depth chart, but provided a scholarship option, at least, decided to transfer.
Now, heading into Week 2 and a game against pass-happy Texas Christian, Arkansas is down to Toliver, Collins, Dean - who may or may not be completely healthy - and Ryan Pulley as the only scholarship options. In most defenses that would be OK. Two starters and two back-ups. But Arkansas played five defensive backs, mostly three corners and two safeties, every single play against Louisiana Tech. The nickel formation is by far Arkansas' best bet defensively.
Toliver will shift inside, back to the position where he was a starter for 2015. Collins stays on the outside and Pulley is currently ahead of Dean on the depth chart on the other side. Dean, in addition to being unhealthy for most of the last six months, found himself on the coaching staff's bad side for part of the fall, too. The option of him redshirting was even floated, although Dean shot that down quickly.
They'll Be Needed
Dean will play if he's physically good to go. That's because TCU is, after one week, the fourth-leading passing team in the country. Quarterback Kenny Hill threw for 439 yards in the Horned Frogs' 59-41 win over South Dakota State on Saturday. The 59 points were ninth-most in Football Bowl Subdivision.
Hill is a familiar face for Arkansas. He was the quarterback at Texas A&M two years ago when the Aggies beat Arkansas in overtime in Arlington, Texas. That day Hill threw for 386 yards and four touchdowns. His next three games he threw six touchdowns and six interceptions and couldn't lead Texas A&M to a single score in a 59-0 loss to Alabama. He subsequently never saw the field again and transferred to TCU.
"He's a much more improved player than the last time we saw him," Bielema said. "I think he feels comfortable. They obviously scored a lot of points. Got some very, very tall edge players on offense. Two guys on the perimeter, on the outside edges that are really tall and create some mismatch issues at 6-4 and 6-3."
Taj Williams is most intimidating out there. He is 6-4 and had 11 receptions for 158 yards Saturday. In the slot, dealing with Toliver probably, will be KaVontae Turpin, a 5-foot-9, 153-pound sophomore who had seven grabs against South Dakota State.
TCU ran 87 plays on offense Saturday, markedly more than Louisiana Tech's 54 against the Razorbacks. The Horned Frogs will want similar numbers against Arkansas this weekend. It will be up to the revamped secondary to stop it.
"They're going to be spread. They'll go as fast as they can go," Bielema said. "I think the one thing that'll become apparent for them and really as I've seen everybody in the Big 12 nowadays, they go as fast as you possibly humanly can. So we're going to need to have a little bit more of an urgency."