FAYETTEVILLE — With University of Arkansas linebacker Chris Paul sitting out last Saturday’s scrimmage with a minor knee injury, Jaheim Thomas got plenty of quality reps.
The extra work was good for Thomas, a senior transfer from Cincinnati.
Thomas didn’t go through spring practice with the Bearcats due to an injury, then he announced in late April he was transferring to Arkansas. So the first scrimmage of camp was the 6-4, 240-pound junior’s first game action since he posted eight tackles in Cincinnati’s 24-7 loss to Louisville in the Fenway Bowl on Dec. 17.
“I really haven’t played since my December game with Cincinnati, so it just really was about being back out there and getting a feel for the game,” Thomas said. “I feel like once that kicked in, I was able to make plays and be with my teammates and have a good defensive scheme going out for the scrimmage.
“That really helped me. I feel like it helped my confidence also coming back into the game.”
Thomas had 70 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks last season, including 7 stops in the 2022 season opener as the Bearcats fell 31-24 to Arkansas at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
“It was good to get him out there and get those scrimmage reps,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Travis Williams said. “He didn’t go through spring ball at the last place he was at, and to get him some live reps was always good. And we went in with the mindset to get him a lot of reps just to see if he could work the rust off.
“He did a really good job. He’s doing a good job. Very smart, very detailed, takes a lot of notes. I’m happy he’s with us.”
Cooking with KJ
Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson went 4 for 4 on fastball starts Friday, showing off a variety of throws in the early segment of practice held entirely on the artificial turf field outside the Walker Pavilion.
Jefferson completed a swing pass to Raheim Sanders for a solid gain, then he found Isaac TeSlaa on a slant in front of cornerback Dwight McGlothern.
On his next play, he ran play action, pump-faked once, then dropped a deep ball into a falling Tyrone Broden deep down the left sideline against tight coverage from Jaheim Singletary. Jefferson completed the perfect sequence with an out route to tight end Luke Hasz on the left edge.
Jacolby Criswell was 0 for 2 with the second unit, which had a sluggish segment that included Josh Street’s snap well over Criswell’s head. Rashod Dubinion had a pair of nice runs, including a breakaway that began with a supreme cut in the backfield. Criswell threw high and wide of Bryce Stephens on the right sideline, then had his pass over the middle for Kalil Girault broken up by a diving Jayden Johnson.
Cade Fortin went 2 for 2, starting with a screen to tailback Isaiah Augustave. Fortin then found Chris Harris on a crossing route of intermediate depth and the redshirt junior broke away for a would-be touchdown.
Augustave had a run up the middle, then Chris Rhodes bobbled and caught a Malachi Singleton pass over the middle that was thrown slightly behind him.
The Arkansas defense had seemingly held sway for large parts of the first 10 to 12 practices of training camp, including the Razorbacks’ first scrimmage last Saturday.
However, KJ Jefferson and the first offensive unit have been making plays the past several days and adding new wrinkles.
First-year defensive coordinator Travis Williams talked about the challenges his unit faced Friday as the Razorbacks went their 13th practice of camp, a workout in shoulder pads and shorts on a warm morning on the artificial turf field outside Walker Pavilion.
In the shorter-than-normal practice, Coach Sam Pittman wanted the offense to push tempo to help both sides of the field, Williams said.
“Man, they came out today and they gave us the tempo and they got some yardage on us,” Williams said. “They were doing some really, really good things. Coach [Dan] Enos … he does a great job. We need that. We need that tempo, because we’ll see it during the season.”
Up or down?
Defensive coordinator Travis Williams said he plans to be in the press box for Saturday’s second scrimmage of camp, as was the case in last Saturday’s scrimmage.
It’s a different view for Williams, who has spent most of his career on the sidelines, including the past two seasons as Central Florida’s defensive coordinator.
“To be honest with you, you can see everything from up there,” Williams said. “But I like to be on the sideline because of my energy and I think the players like my energy.”
Williams compared his energy on the sideline to that of a parent in the crowd.
“Y’all ever see a parent in the stands and their son makes a tackle?” Williams said with a smile. “I’m the same way as a coordinator. I’m happy to see them make a tackle. But at times, you want to have that poise and get the next call out. So when you’re in the booth, you can get to the next call really quickly.”
Williams said after getting more of a feel for it in Saturday’s scrimmage, he’ll make a decision whether to be on the sideline or press box for the season opener against Western Carolina on Sept. 2 in Little Rock.
Defensive coordinator Travis Williams — also known as T-Will — doesn’t let the players come into a quiet meeting room.
“Every meeting, we’re going to come into some music, no matter what it is,” linebacker Jordan Crook said. “High energy, high level … It’s just a big party. Just ready to have fun and play football. It doesn’t get any better.”
Linebacker Chris Paul said he likes the atmosphere Williams’ music promotes.
“The thing that I like about that is, there’s nothing wrong with having fun with what you’re doing,” Paul said. “Just coming in and seeing guys hyped for practice and he’s playing songs … it just gives me more confidence going out there knowing that it’s OK to mess up on this one, mess up full speed and then the next play be on top of your stuff. If you’re not having fun, you’re not going to enjoy it.”
Transfer linebacker Jaheim Thomas aid he also approves of Williams’ approach.
“Him blasting music always and having the energy welcoming us into the meeting room, I feel like that just gets us ready for practice,” Thomas said. “Getting us all hype and having the energy to go to practice.”
The players were asked what’s the worst song Williams has played?
“It doesn’t matter what he’s playing, we’re always jamming,” Paul said. “I haven’t really [heard] a bad song where, ‘Ah, he has to change that.’ ”
The only new player sidelined by injury was offensive lineman Josh Brown, who worked on the sideline with an undisclosed issue.
Otherwise, the group featured tight end Nathan Bax, offensive lineman Joey Su’a, defensive end Jashaud Stewart and linebacker Antonio Grier.
Offensive coordinator Dan Enos said recent practice scripts have been intentional challenges to the offense after the Razorbacks completed their basic install.
“All right we’ve got it all in, but now we’re changing it,” Enos said he told the players. “We’re doing it today out of this personnel grouping, we’re going to today out of this formation, we’re going to do it today out of this motion or whatever that is. We’re trying to continue to apply pressure, but in a different way.”
Enos also said he likes the situation he’s returned to at Arkansas, and the staff and roster he’s inherited.
“Certainly Coach [Sam Pittman] has done a great job and continues to build a great culture here, I think him and the staff,” he said. “Because I haven’t recruited anybody here, they’ve done a tremendous job of recruiting this football team as well.”