Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash said he was “seriously” concerned about middle linebacker Austin Jones before last Saturday’s season-opening win.
He had high expectations, hoping the senior would play well in his first start. But he just didn’t know how Jones would handle the test. So he was pleasantly surprised with the results during Arkansas’ 34-14 win against Louisiana-Lafayette.
“He just had command of the defense,” Ash said. “He set the front right, made adjustments when we needed them to be made. Read his keys and was in the right spot most of the time. As long as we can start there, then we have a chance.”
Jones was manning the middle of the defense in his starting debut and will be there again when Arkansas plays Samford in Little Rock on Saturday night. He finished with six tackles and also recovered a fumble forced by defensive end Trey Flowers.
Linebackers coach Randy Shannon broke his performance down even further Wednesday night, saying Jones had a “high ratio of making plays.” He calculated Jones made one play for every four snaps he was on the field in his debut.
“That’s a good ratio when you have a linebacker that’s really active,” Shannon said. “For him, lining up and getting us lined up as a middle linebacker, he did a phenomenal job. He was nervous when it first started and then all of a sudden he got tuned in. He started making plays and started doing a lot of good things.”
Ash was quick to point out Jones wasn’t perfect. No one was in the opener.
But he’s believes Jones will continue to take strides in his second start Saturday.
“I thought for his first game playing middle linebacker he actually did a pretty good job,” Ash said. “Does he have to play better? Absolutely. But he probably exceeded my expectations.”
Arkansas enjoyed most of its ground game success over the right side of its offensive line Saturday. It was an impressive performance considering right tackle Grady Ollison was making his first start, while right guard Brey Cook was working at his new position after starting six games at tackle last season.
“It wasn’t anything planned,” Arkansas coach Bret Bielema said. “I think in general we felt good about the matchups on that side. And then as the game wore on, we had more and more success to that side until the big bounce, or the cut back, by J-Will.”
Offensive line coach Sam Pittman said the duo — with plenty of help from fullback Kiero Small and center Travis Swanson — is an improving combination.
“I think they’re starting to play a little better together,” Pittman said. “They’re starting to communicate a little better. When you lead Kiero Small and you lead Travis Swanson, you can lead them to the left, lead them to the right, and there will probable be a pretty good result. That’s what we were doing for the most part.
“Grady obviously can get out there and run, so were trying to run our toss plays over to his side, because he’s got that ability to run.”
Gaines’ status unclear
Ash said the Razorbacks are planning to play injured safety Rohan Gaines against Samford on Saturday. But it’s not yet clear if the sophomore — who injured his knee in the fourth quarter — will be healthy enough to return to his starting spot.
“We’ll see how it goes throughout the week,” Ash said. “We’ve had other guys that have been working in there too, so we’ll see how it goes on game day.”
Gaines was injured when his leg whipped into teammate Darius Philon. It was the second time he suffered a knee injury since the start of camp. Ash said Gaines was “moving around better every day,” but couldn’t say if he’ll play against Samford.
“He’s improving every single day,” Ash said. “My fingers are crossed he’ll be out there. I know he wants to be and he’ll do everything he can.”
If he can’t go, junior Alan Turner will likely start in Gaines’ place Saturday.
Long on Bielema
Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long knows the Razorbacks still have 11 regular season games to go in 2013. But like most, he was impressed with Bielema and the rest of the coaching staff in Arkansas’ opener against Louisiana-Lafayette.
He said Arkansas has the “whole package” with Bielema and staff and believes they’ve “set the foundation for Razorback football” moving forward.
“I think you all saw what I saw, which was a well-organized program,” Long said. “One that appeared to be very well coached and prepared for that game.
“Now, we’re still in a transition and I was really impressed that typically when you have a head coaching transition you’re going to find some things missed or some pieces. But this staff, Coach Bielema, man, they have initiative. They really pay attention to great detail with our program. I’m not talking about just offensively, defensively, special teams. I’m talking about throughout the program.”