FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas senior Terrell Williams spent most of his career as a reserve linebacker, backing up veterans like former Razorback Jerry Franklin.
He was in a reserve role early this season, too, with Tenarius Wright and Alonzo Highsmith manning the starting spots. But a shoulder injury forced Wright back to defensive end two weeks ago and, now, has ended his season. And Highsmith is in the same boat after requiring season-ending surgery for a foot injury this week.
Suddenly, Williams stands as the only veteran in a razor-thin unit as Arkansas (2-4, 1-2 in SEC) prepares to play Kentucky (1-5, 0-3) on Saturday in Razorback Stadium.
“It’s kind of crazy,” Williams said. “But it’s just part of the game.”
A lot has gone wrong on and off the field for the Razorbacks during the first half of the 2012 season, which is evident in a 2-4 start. One of the big issues has been a staggering number of injuries that have taxed Arkansas throughout the season.
Key players like Wright, Highsmith, quarterback Tyler Wilson and tight end Chris Gragg have all missed games. Some positions — like fullback where Kiero Small and Kody Walker — have been hit had by season-ending injuries. Health issues at other spots have left youngsters playing key roles earlier this expected.
The Razorbacks aren’t alone. Kentucky is dealing with just as many injury problems in what is shaping up to be a battered and bruised bowl, of sorts, on Saturday.
Coach John L. Smith looked back at the carnage during the Southeastern Conference teleconference on Wednesday and said the rash of injuries are hard to believe.
“It’s just one of those years,” Smith said. “You can’t explain it. Some years you just lose a lot of guys. The thing for us is most of them have been season-enders.
“You hate to see it,” Smith said. “Not only for our football team, but for the young men who have suffered those injuries. It’s a shame. I’m not sure about all (Kentucky’s) injuries but gosh, we think we’ve had enough for two or three teams.”
It started in the preseason for the Razorbacks, who were missing three of their most experienced defensive players for the bulk of camp. Highsmith, Wright and safety Eric Bennett were all limited and kept out of contact work because of issues.
It was a precursor of things to come for the Razorbacks, who have dealt with injuries throughout the season.
“It’s a part of the game,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes said. “Next guy has to get in there. Next guy has to play and he’s got to produce. You can’t sit around and talk about it too much. You can’t sit around and mope about it too much.
“You get the next guy in there and you get him prepared.”
Arkansas’ most costly week came in the Louisiana-Monroe loss, when Wilson left the game with a concussion late in the first half. Arkansas lost starting corner Tevin Mitchel to a scary helmet-to-helmet collision in the second half, then fullback Kody Walker to a broken leg a few snaps later. Both players were carted off the field.
The Razorbacks squandered a 21-point lead in the second half without Wilson, kicking off a four-game losing skid. Wilson missed the Alabama loss (52-0), which proved to be the first time Arkansas had been shut out since 1993.
It’s hard to say just how much affect the injuries have had on the offense. But consider this: Wilson and his top two targets entering the season (Gragg and receiver Cobi Hamilton) have only been on the field together for four quarters through six games this season. Gragg will likely miss his third game Saturday.
“We have always prided ourselves here about having people that can come in and step in because of how hard we work in the off-season because of the pressure that is put on guys in meetings and they understand what we are doing even in the back up spots,” Wilson said of the injuries Monday. “But there is always a little drop-off when you go to the next in line and that is the difference in a great team and other teams - how quickly you can maybe fill that gap.”
It has been the key question defensively, where Smith said Arkansas could ill afford to lose players to injuries before the season began.
Injuries to Highsmith and Wright knocked Arkansas’ top returning players off the field this season. It also has left Williams and freshman A.J. Turner working with the first-team defense this week. Freshman Otha Peters and little-used sophomore Jarrett Lake are working with the second team unit.
The secondary has been dealing with similar issues with Mitchel (missed four games), Bennett (one game) and cornerback Kaelon Kelleybrew (one game) down.
The problems left Arkansas starting two freshmen corners (Davyon McKinney and Will Hines), a redshirt freshman safety (Rohan Gaines), and a sophomore (Alan Turner) in the secondary at Auburn. Senior Ross Rasner also started last week.
“It’s tough, but other guys are getting opportunities to play,” Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith said. “It’s kind of like last year. I use it as the example. Me and Trey Flowers, we had no idea that Jake (Bequette) was going out the second or third game. Jake and Tank. So you’ve got to be ready to play. And those guys stepped up.”
Kentucky knows how Arkansas feels. Injuries have devastated the Wildcats in the secondary and at quarterback, where four have taken snaps this season.
Defensive backs Martavius Neloms, Dakotah Tyler, Cartier Rice, Ashley Lowery and Mike Benton were hit with the injury bug. Quarterbacks Maxwell Smith and Patrick Towles also are out because of injuries after showing some promise.
Kentucky coach Joker Phillips tried to put a positive spin on the rash of injuries this week, pointing to the 2005 team that was ravaged as well. He said it helped in 2006.
“Once you start getting some of the guys back, it does nothing but build depth because you had to play some guys that normally wouldn’t have been able to play, and they start getting experience and you start developing depth,” Phillips said.
“When we came back in 06 we had a lot of depth, and that’s when we started our five straight bowl run. That was the positive out of it. It still makes it tough for the season that you’re in, but it gives young guys an opportunity to play.”
There’s one thing Arkansas has refused to do as the injuries pile up.
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said it won’t be used as an excuse.
“We’ve never brought it up,” Petrino said of the rash of injuries. “We never will. We’ll never use that as an excuse. So it’s just part of the deal. … You’ve got to play with who you got. You do your best and go out there and compete.”
Arkansas has had some bright moments from players pressed into action.
The young secondary finally performed well at Auburn, while Williams and Peters held their ground at linebacker in the 24-7 win. Arkansas also is getting more production from walk-on fullback Morgan Linton with Small and Walker sideline, while tight end Austin Tate caught four passes in Gragg’s absence at Auburn.
It’s not what Arkansas envisioned when 2012 began. But Smith said it’s the reality the Razorbacks have been dealing with through the first half of the season.
“Some years you get a bunch of injuries. Some years you don’t get any,” Smith said last week, before Highsmith and Wright joined the list of Razorbacks out for the rest of the season. “I guess it’s just luck of the draw.”
Arkansas has been plagued by injuries this season, losing several key starters and contributors through the first six games. Here’s a rundown of those players who have missed time because of injuries this season:
• S Eric Bennett — Hamstring — Missed Texas A&M game; Returned last week
• OG Tyler Deacon — Knee — Missed one game
• TE Chris Gragg — Leg injury — Missed 2 straight games; Doubtful Saturday
• WR Cobi Hamilton — Head injury — Missed 3 quarters of Jacksonville State game
• LB Alonzo Highsmith — Foot surgery — Out for season; Played in six games
• CB Kaelon Kelleybrew — Head injury — Missed Auburn game; Probable Saturday
• QB Tyler Wilson — Concussion — Missed 2nd half vs. ULM, Alabama game
• FB Kiero Small — Broken foot — Out for season; Played in one game
• FB Kody Walker — Broken leg — Out for season; Played in two games
• DE Tenarius Wright — Shoulder — Out for season; Played in five games
• CB Tevin Mitchel — Head, Gall Bladder — Questionable Saturday, Missed four Games
• Denotes Starter Entering 2012 season