Arkansas defensive tackle Robert Thomas underwent surgery to repair the broken bone in his left left Sunday night, according to coach Bret Bielema.
Bielema, who feared last Saturday night the senior would be lost for the rest of the season, said Thomas will need three or four months to recover. So his Arkansas career has ended.
“I saw him this morning and he said he did enough crying (Sunday) and is focusing on the positives,” Bielema said of Thomas. “We’ll help him through the next couple of months. The great thing about that is he already has his degree and for him to grow as much as I think he did in the last six months with us — one of the few guys that from Day One was just unbelievable. … If I had a problem or an issue with any position he would bring that kid in and sit him down on my couch and I would talk real with him and for that I will be ever forever indebted to him.”
Thomas is ranked sixth on the team in tackles (31), tied for third in tackles for losses (6) and is third in sacks (3 1/2) this season. Thomas — a team captain — finished with 72 tackles, 13 ½ tackles for losses and 7 sacks in 31 career games.
The Razorbacks will plug redshirt freshman Darius Philon into Thomas’ spot with the first-team defense for Saturday’s game against Alabama. The Mobile, Ala., native has played well in a reserve role with 6 tackles for losses and 3 sacks this season.
Bielema said Arkansas also is counting on sophomores DeMarcus Hodge and Horace Arkadie to provide depth on the interior of the defensive line. Senior Byran Jones, who has 20 tackles in seven games, now leads the group of defensive tackles.
“Robert’s a great leader for us as well as a great player,” Arkansas defensive coordinator Chris Ash said about Thomas’ absence. “So, yeah, it’s a big hit for us.
“But I think the other guys that have been in there are playing well and can pick up their production and do a good job. But it’s a loss.”
Academics = Athletics
Bielema’s team hasn’t performed well on the field the past four games, equaling the longest losing streak of his career as a head coach. But Bielema indicated after the 52-7 loss to South Carolina his team needs improvement in the classroom as well.
Bielema, who sits down with Arkansas’ academic staff every Thursday, said his recent meeting went much longer than he expects.
“You’d like those meetings to be about 15-20 minutes to review the roster,” Bielema said. “I took an hour and 30 minutes to meet with our academic people. That’s Thursday, two days before the game. And we’re not where we need to be there.”
Bielema was asked more about those postgame comments Monday and said that a distracted team “doesn’t put all it’s focus where it needs to be” and must improve academically. Bielema added carelessness in the classroom won’t be accepted and the academic concerns surrounding his team must be “eradicated.”
“It’s something that’s been my personal mission since I got here,” Bielema said. “We had the highest spring GPA that they’ve ever had during (AD Jeff Long’s) tenure. We had a really, really good summer. Then in the fall, we lose and there’s that chance for a little bit of wiggle room. Kids are going to naturally try to do it.
“There is so much carryover between academic failure and football failure. They’re tied together for a reason. That’s why the NCAA wants to be great.”
Arkansas mixed up its Sunday afternoon schedule this week, holding a scrimmage session for younger players after its light workout for contributors.
Bielema said he saw some promise during the scrimmage, which was primarily limited to players who logged fewer than 30 snaps against South Carolina.
“I think that did a good job in not only bringing our players back, but bringing our coaches back with a chance to go out and work some fundamentals with the younger players,” Bielema said. “We had a lot of good work there.”
Bielema highlighted running back Korliss Marshall and safety De’Andre Coley as players who stood out. Bielema said guard Reeve Koehler played well, too, before leaving with a “slight” knee injury. Freshmen Austin Allen and Damon Mitchell were the only quarterbacks taking snaps during the short scrimmage.
“Duwop had a couple nice series,” Bielema said. “Austin had one nice series. Both of them have shown that they’ve grown quite a bit since fall camp. But you know, just the details of lining up and executing an offense the way we need to on Saturday, they’re just not quite there yet.”
Irwin-Hill earns SEC honor
Arkansas punter Sam Irwin-Hill was named the Southeastern Conference’s special teams player of the week Monday.
The junior earned the weekly honor after averaging 53.5 yards on four punts during the 52-7 loss to South Carolina. It included a 79-yard punt, which was the seventh longest in school history and the second-longest in the NCAA this season.
Irwin-Hill ranks fourth in the SEC and 14th in the NCAA in punting average (45.1 yards). He has placed 10 of his 20 punts inside the 20-yard line this season.
He is 1-for-2 passing for 24 yards this season as well. Irwin-Hill threw an incomplete pass on a fake punt late in the second quarter to set up a South Carolina touchdown at the end of the half, giving the Gamecocks a 24-7 lead.