The three major men's sports on the University of Arkansas campus recently made waves for myriad reasons. We'll start on a low note, which unsurprisingly is the one that emanated from a basketball program that's practically besotted with turbulence after a sketchy close-out of 2017-18.
No sooner than freshman wunderkind Dan Gafford has affirmed his intent to return for a sophomore season via social media did rumors begin to swirl about two of the Hogs' other expected returnees. The message boards were alive with speculative-seeming posts about Darious Hall and C.J. Jones departing for other programs, and it was a puzzler, to be sure: Why would two guys, particularly a Little Rock product like Hall, think of bolting when they'd assuredly play a major role next season, given the departures of six seniors?
The rumblings died a bit and then exploded when Mike Anderson confirmed the two swingmen were indeed headed to new locations undisclosed. As is typical of the online rumor mill, there was unsubstantiated but healthy conversation about Hall wanting to take his athletic frame to Memphis to play for the Tigers' new coach — and onetime NBA star-turned-high school coach — Penny Hardaway. The jury's out on what Birmingham, Ala., product Jones, who played sparingly as a freshman before becoming a more-or-less everyday bench producer as a soph, will end up doing.
Ultimately, the venom directed toward these young men by some will look silly. While players commonly transfer from program to program, it's a little unsettling to see two guys with bright futures leave so quickly. You may recall that when Nolan Richardson secured Chris Jeffries from the West Coast roughly 20 years ago, he left after a promising freshman season to get closer to home at Fresno State, where he eventually parlayed an all-conference season into a spot at the back end of the first round of the 2002 NBA Draft. Jones maybe wasn't all too comfortable being a spot scorer in Anderson's offense, but Hall's departure after one encouraging if erratic season is mind-boggling. And it only casts another cloud over the terminus of the Hogs' Jekyll-and-Hyde 2017-18 season and the onset of the following one.
The news on the gridiron is, for a change, better. Nasty conditions kept many fans away from War Memorial Stadium for the first Red-White game in that venue in 30 years, but those who shook off the crappy weather for a couple of hours were treated to what Chad Morris' staff promises to bring. Six quarterbacks played, and while none of them showed great accuracy, it was evident that Ty Storey and Cole Kelley may end up competing for the starting job given how much field time the former actually saw. Once deemed a bright prospect who became a bit of an afterthought, Storey was a modest 7-for-14 throwing it, but seemed pretty comfortable at the helm of the two-back offense and fired a 53-yard score to tight end Cheyenne O'Grady, who himself craves a redemption year after struggling to be a consistent weapon in his sophomore campaign.
Kelley was capable enough, 10-for-19 with a pretty scoring toss to LaMichael Pettway, but the really encouraging part of the scrimmage was the tailback rhythm that developed with returning starter Devwah Whaley, who appeared a bit lighter and a lot quicker en route to a game-high 62 yards on the ground for the White. Maleek Williams, who appeared set to contribute last fall but was thankfully able to redshirt when grad transfer David Williams (no relation) shined in his lone year after coming over from South Carolina, also made an impression with 61 yards on the ground and a short touchdown run.
The defense was fairly salty, despite forcing only a single turnover. That came by way of a strip-sack from Jamario Bell of Storey, and Bell is yet another player who has a prime opportunity to rediscover himself in this new regime. Recruiting services once heaped praise on the Junction City prospect, who arrived with four stars but no defined position. After he shifted to tight end and then linebacker for a spell, the rangy and quick 6-foot-6 defensive end appears at home as a down lineman, and his progress will be a source of intrigue as spring ball wraps up.
Lastly, and best of all, Arkansas's baseball squad popped off another home sweep, this time against No. 15 Auburn, to shake off the bad memories of three one-run losses over the past two weekends away from Baum Stadium. It was a strange weekend on the whole, with a couple of obscure occurrences Friday and Sunday favoring the Hogs, but it was exactly the kind of weekend the team needed after being unable to wrest series victories away from Top 5 foes Ole Miss and Florida. Now the Hogs sit 24-9, 8-4, atop the SEC West, and feeling justifiably good about themselves since the deadliest part of the schedule is now behind them.
Isaiah Campbell's hold on a weekend starting spot probably loosened for good after he faltered Sunday against the Tigers in the finale, but Jake Reindl was brilliant over seven innings of nine-strikeout relief, and the Hogs got a walk-off hit from freshman phenom Heston Kjerstad to avenge last year's series loss to the Plainsmen. Dave Van Horn's teams have traditionally had a midseason lull even in better seasons (2004, 2012, 2015), so if the Razorbacks stay on this pace to the end, it will put them above the 40-win mark easily and have them positioned for a high seed in the conference tourney. Ultimately, though, this is a squad with undisputed national title aspirations and talent to match, and because the defense has been a bit spotty, the starting staff anchored by Blaine Knight will need to continue to eat innings and strand runners for the team to reach those heights.