FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes knows the strength of Auburn’s offense lies in its run game.
But Haynes also knows Razorbacks’ biggest weakness and is counting on the Tigers, like every other opponent, to try to exploit it Saturday.
“What do you think they’re going to do? They’re going to come in here and throw the ball around,” Haynes said Wednesday. “You know, I would too.”
So Arkansas’ secondary – part of one of the nation’s worst pass defenses – will be under the spotlight once again when the Razorbacks (1-4, 0-2 in SEC) play at Auburn (1-3, 0-2) on Saturday. Plenty of eyes will be on the cornerbacks, too, where injuries and depth issues have left two freshmen logging plenty of playing time.
True freshman Will Hines will likely earn his third straight start against the Tigers on Saturday. Redshirt freshman Davyon McKinney will start if Kaelon Kelleybrew isn’t ready to return from last week’s injury. Arkansas coach John L. Smith did say Thursday night Kelleybrew will be with the team during its road trip.
The freshmen were not available for interviews this week, but Haynes expressed confidence in both even after Arkansas’ rough outing against the Aggies.
“Those guys, really, to be honest with you, have had a great week of practice,” Haynes said. “I was real pleased with how they prepared. They’re fighters. They were very, very aggressive in practice. That was good to see.”
Hines stepped into the starting lineup earlier this year after a disappointing performance from veteran Darius Winston. The Waco, Texas, native has remained on the field, too, thanks in part to injuries at the position. Hines has 12 tackles.
McKinney – who came to Arkansas as a receiver last year before moving to cornerback during preseason practices – was pressed into action earlier than expected after Kelleybrew’s injury last week. The Forrest City native finished the Texas A&M game - the first significant action of his career - with one tackle.
It wasn’t a flawless performance by any means. Arkansas allowed 716 yards after all, including 498 through the air. But cornerbacks coach Bobby Allen said the freshmen gave everything they had under challenging circumstances.
“A redshirt freshman and a freshman,” Allen said. “But I was proud of them. They were going out there to compete and try to win. That’s all you can ask a kid to do.”
Arkansas will need improvement in both are on the field Saturday, though.
The Tigers have struggled to throw the ball with quarterback Kiehl Frazier under center this season, averaging 144.8 yards a game. Auburn, which will play without suspended receiver Quan Bray, has a chance to get on track against the Hogs.
So it’s no secret the two young corners will be targeted.
But defensive end Chris Smith believes they’ll be up to the challenge.
“They’re working hard,” Smith said. “They’re coming along with the playbook. So, you know, that’s the main thing. They can go play. The older guys, we’ve just got to help them with the playbook and learn in-game situations. But they look good out there and they’re working hard and they’re showing great effort.”
Haynes said Arkansas must be aware of the lack of experience, though, and make sure the gameplan for the corners isn’t overwhelming. Arkansas has spoken extensively about trimming back on its defensive plans to account for youth.
The goal is to keep players from becoming too overwhelmed with the system.
Haynes said both players have done a good job in practice this week in preparation for Auburn. Now, Haynes said the cornerbacks must “transfer it over to the field.”
There performance could have a big say in whether Arkansas’ four-game slide ends.
“When two freshmen are out there playing, I just let them know, ‘Hey, look, just go out there and play your game and don’t worry about what this person has to say or that person,” linebacker Alonzo Highsmith said. “Just focus in and play the game you know how to play, the game that you’ve been playing your whole life.’
“Most of the time, freshmen play pretty well, because they don’t have any expectations, really. They’re just out there playing and having fun.”