By Nate Allen
Special to the News-Times
FAYETTEVILLE - In their Arkansas careers, these Razorbacks defensively have never felt more prepared for an Air Raid than what awaits them Saturday.
Arkansas opens its season at 3 p.m. Saturday in a SEC Network televised game against the Eastern Illinois Panthers of the Ohio Valley Conference.
The Panthers, head coached by former Razorback cornerback-receiver Kim Dameron, bring a hurry-up spread offense that new EIU offensive coordinator and former Navarro Junior College coach Scott Parr calls an "Air Raid."
These Razorbacks were both air-raided and run through by spread offenses during the 2016 and 2017 conclusions of the Bret Bielema regime. The obviously overall lesser talented scout team impersonating the opposition offense was the only hurry-up spread that Arkansas' defense faced in practice.
Because for any best vs. best portions of practice, Bielema's offenses stressed huddling and a slower, ball-control pace.
Now under new Arkansas coach Chad Morris, the huddles are gone, the pace accelerated and the offense spread.
So Arkansas' defenses practice accordingly at the pace EIU will try and set Saturday.
"I feel we will be way more prepared than we were this time last year," Arkansas fifth-year senior starting free safety Santo Ramirez said.
"Just because we have gone against them not just in the fall but the spring as well. Being able to adjust to that type of game speed, coach Morris is doing a great job of getting us in shape, man. And with us running the no-huddle offense, I feel like this team will be prepared for teams to come."
Junior cornerback Ryan Pulley said the practice pace keeps pace with what EIU and other hurry-up offenses throw at the Hogs.
"It helps us a lot," Pulley said. "Half the teams in the SEC probably go hurry-up now. That helps us a lot going against it in practice."
Pulley calls this preseason's practice pace "way faster" and that it left the Hogs gasping during spring drills last March and April.
"We just had to get used to it," Pulley said. "It's easy for us now. We just have to go to our spots and get ready. We just have gotten used to it and go through."
Last year, Pulley played only in the season-opener upon suffering a season-ending torn pectoral muscles injury during the game.
However, he did practice the entire 2017 preseason.
So he has a base of comparison to make along with Ramirez asserting that at this stage the Hogs are more ready to play in the 4-3 scheme of new defensive coordinator John Chavis than last year when Bielema (now a New England Patriots consultant) and defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads (now UCLA's secondary coach) moved he Razorbacks from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense.
"I would say right now people can play faster because the game is simpler," Ramirez said of the Chavis scheme. "You hear your call and make it happen and don't hear too much about it. I feel like I'm in good position."
Pulley said the improved conditioning over summer they knew from spring they would need simply to get through practice makes a better, quicker thinking overall defense.
"I think we're more ready," Pulley said. "Our bodies are more ready. More focused. More equipped. We've got a coaching staff that has the players ready to play the scheme."
They will have to ready for two quarterbacks Saturday as will EIU's defense.
Morris has announced Cole Kelley, the third-year sophomore and last year's backup starting four games when 2017 senior Austin Allen was injured, will start, but that fourth-year junior Ty Storey of Charleston also will play.
Dameron said he won't announce a starting quarterback. But he said both Harry Woodberry, the quarterback Parr brought with him from Navarro, and Jonathan Brantley, a transfer from Tulane, both will play.
By their assessments of the EIU quarterbacks, it seems Ramirez and Pulley believe that Woodberry is the likely starter.
"The starting quarterback, off JUCO tape and everything, I feel like he has a great arm on him," Ramirez said. "He knows how to run the offense they run over there. I feel like he cuts off the field pretty fast so it's going to be a great opportunity to make plays. The second quarterback is a great runner. When he gets in we have to be alert for the speed option. So one is more gunslinger and one is more of a running quarterback."
Pulley noted that junior quarterback Brantley had big game experience during his two years at Tulane with a 2016 start against Oklahoma.
Brantley also started for the Green Wave in 2016 against Navy and Louisiana-Lafayette.
The Razorbacks had a closed to media practice Thursday and will have a closed walk-through today at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.