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Freshmen in the SEC often find college football tough sledding. Rare is the time a first-year player provides a massive spark to his program. Rare, but not unheard of.
Arkansas has a number of first-year players who have affected the season in a positive way.
Coach Sam Pittman and his position coaches haven’t played many of their freshmen. Arkansas is, after all, a team still building depth and with several super-seniors choosing to return after the 2020 was largely a wash, the Razorbacks a bit more upperclassmen depth than they would have in a normal year.
Still, a few of the young bucks have affected the season in a positive way. Here is a midseason-ish look at the five who have done the most.
5. Quarterback Malik Hornsby
Sep 25, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks quarterback Malik Hornsby (4) and Texas A&M Aggies linebacker Aaron Hansford (1) in action during the game between the Arkansas Razorbacks and the Texas A&M Aggies at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
The 4-star recruit from Texas has seen the field in bits in 2021. In six games, Hornsby has gone 5 of 12 passing for 46 yards. He’s also run 20 times for 69 yards with a touchdown against Georgia Southern.
Hornsby isn’t expected to carry the Arkansas offense. Starter KJ Jefferson, in his first year as the full-time man behind center, has cemented his status as the first-stringer. But coach Sam Pittman knows Hornsby’s electricity can be a game-changer, so he’s seen more time than a normal back-up, especially a freshman back-up, normally would.
It’s all about the future for Hornsby, as he has to develop his passing skills and decision-making, but the future looks bright.
4. S Jayden Johnson
Arkansas defensive back Jayden Johnson (8) against Rice during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods).
The longer the season has gone, the more Jayden Johnson has found his name called.
At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Johnson has the build of a heavy-hitter in the defensive backfield. But his coverage ability has kept him in games, too. Through six games, he has registered 11 tackles, including two for-loss, as his size allows some aggression near the line of scrimmage.
With loss of Preseason All-American safety Jalen Catalon, Johnson is likely to only see his playing time grow in the Razorbacks’ final four-game stretch of the year.
3. WR Ketron Jackson Jr.
Oct 23, 2021; Little Rock, Arkansas, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks wide receiver Ketron Jackson Jr (2) scores a touchdown in the second quarter against the Arkansas Pine Bluff Golden Lions at War Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Jackson was the most talked-about freshman on the roster in camp. With his combination of skills and size, Jackson found himself getting regular playing time even in the early season.
The numbers hadn’t truly shown until Saturday against Arkansas-Pine Bluff, though, when he scored his first career touchdown. Jackson may only have three catches for 44 yards and the score, but he’s played in every game and will be looked toward to push for starter’s time in 2022.
2. RB AJ Green
Sep 25, 2021; Arlington, Texas, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks running back AJ Green (0) celebrates scoring a touchdown against the Texas A&M Aggies during the second quarter at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
When the freshman from Oklahoma gets in the open field, he’s hard to catch. Green is the fastest of Arkansas’ foursome of running backs who see carries and, at times, he’s had an ability to flash it (think back to his touchdown against Texas).
On a roster with less depth at tailback, Green might have more than his 39 carries for 194 yards and a touchdown. At Arkansas, it means he’s the No. 4 option.
That’s not a drag on him whatsoever. The Razorbacks’ talent in the backfield rivals some of the best its had in the post-Darren McFadden/Felix Jones/Peyton Hillis era when it comes to depth and ability.
1. RB Rocket Sanders
FAYETTEVILLE, ARKANSAS – SEPTEMBER 18: Raheim Sanders #5 of the Arkansas Razorbacks runs the ball in the second half of a game against the Georgia Southern Eagles at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium on September 18, 2021 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The Razorbacks defeated the Eagles 10-45. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Raheim Sanders is rarely called by his first name in Razorback circles. He’s Rocket. And he’s the clear No. 1 freshman on the roster in 2021.
Sanders trails only starter Trelon Smith among Arkansas running backs in yards and carries and even then, only by a touch. Sanders has 79 carries (Smith has 90) for 434 yards (Smith has 459). He’s a reliable ball-carrier and the best receiver of the bunch.
Pittman actually recruited Sanders as a wide receiver. It was clear in camp his best position would be next to or behind Jefferson, though. Nothing he’s done this season has suggested otherwise. When Smith exits, it’s Rocket who stands to be next man up.