FAYETTEVILLE — Starting defensive tackle Markell Utsey remains sidelined for Saturday’s 11 a.m. SEC Network televised nonconference game at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock against the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff Golden Lions, but starting cornerback LaDarrius Bishop should resume, Arkansas Razorbacks coach Sam Pittman said Wednesday.
Utsey, Bishop and starting Preseason All-American safety Jalen Catalon all missed Arkansas’ 38-23 SEC Homecoming loss last Saturday to the Auburn Tiger at Reynolds Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
Catalon underwent shoulder surgery Monday and will miss the season’s remainder.
Sophomore Myles Slusher of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, replaced Catalon as the starting safety against Auburn. Slusher is asked not only to replace Catalon physically but also to be the defense’s quarterback making sure all are properly aligned each play.
“Obviously (fourth-year junior semi-regular safety) Simeon Blair when he’s in there, he’s able to do that,” Pittman said. “But we’re hoping Slush kind of takes over that spot of doing that. If Slush isn’t in there, it’ll probably be Malik (Chavis). We’re feeling like those guys can do that as well. Last year against LSU when Jalen went out, we at times looked a little bit confused back there. I don’t think that’ll be the case now. We’ve got guys that are at least a year older than what they were last year, and of course Slush played a lot of ball last week.”
Though Utsey won’t be a part of it, Pittman looks for better things from a defensive line that helped Arkansas, now 4-3, to a 4-0 start including stellar performances in upset victories over Texas and Texas A&M, but has not fared well in successive 37-0, 52-51 and 38-23 SEC losses to nationally No. 1 Georgia, No. 12 Ole Miss and No. 19 Auburn.
“As a unit, we have to play better than what we have,” Pittman said. “Going back to Texas A&M and Texas and Georgia Southern and Rice, I think the D-line has played better. But I think we’ll get back again with Ridge (defensive nose tackle John Ridgeway) and Utsey and those guys. They’ve been beat up. I think Ridge will be healthy this weekend. ‘Uts,’ probably another week out. We haven’t played as well there over the last two weeks as we did earlier in the year, and we’ve got to get back to that.”
UAPB, a 50-point underdog as a 1-5 team down a division (FCS instead of the top division FBS that includes Arkansas) and the SWAC (Southwestern Athletic Conference) obviously isn’t the SEC caliber that beset Arkansas these last four games.
However, off Arkansas’ three-game losing streak Pittman and the staff take nothing for granted as they try and kick start the Hogs into next week’s open date and regrouping for the final November SEC stretch hosting Mississippi State in Fayetteville, visiting LSU and Alabama and finishing in Fayetteville against Missouri.
“We’re just worried about our own team this week and getting back on track,” Pittman said. “Try to get poised to make a run. Certainly you can’t make a run if you don’t win the first one.”
As for Bishop, out with a hamstring injury last week and replaced at starting cornerback by Hudson Clark, he’s “ready to go,” Pittman said.
Though the Razorbacks have lost their last three games their offensive line has attained national recognition.
Arkansas is among 19 teams on the midseason honor roll for Joe Moore Award postseason honoring the best offensive line unit in the country.
The line currently starting center Ricky Stromberg, guards Brady Latham and Beaux Limmer, left tackle Myron Cunningham and Ty Clary replacing the injured Dalton Wagner at right tackle, has paved Arkansas averaging 243 rushing yards per game and 459.7 yards total offense per game.
Pittman said the running game, featuring running backs Trelon Smith, a fourth-year junior, sophomore Dominique Johnson strictly on special teams last year, and true freshmen Raheim “Rocket” Sanders and AJ Green, starts with running quarterback KJ Jefferson.
“I think a lot of it has to do with KJ Jefferson’s ability to run the ball,” Pittman said.
“My dad was an old coach and his big deal was ‘If they don’t know where the football is you have a lot better chance of having success running it.’ And we’ve got a lot of that concept in our game. Where is it? Did the quarterback keep it? Are we going to throw it or are we going to hand it off? KJ being a runner and I think we’re just a better offensive line than we were last year. And we have certainly three runners that we really didn’t have last year. I’m counting Dominique in that because he really didn’t play much.”