FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas will have several new starters for the bowl game who haven’t been a regular starter previously.
Between opt outs, injuries and players entering the transfer portal Arkansas has been forced to add some new starters to face Kansas.
Three starters declared for the 2023 NFL Draft and opted out of the game. They are linebacker Drew Sanders, wide receiver Jadon Haselwood and center Ricky Stromberg. One starter, linebacker Bumper Pool, underwent hip surgery and is out. Starters who entered the transfer portal are tight end Trey Knox, wide receiver Ketron Jackson, defensive tackle Isaiah Nichols and nickel back Myles Slusher. Pool didn’t play against Missouri due to the hip injury and Slusher quit the team prior to the final game.
Here’s three replacements who need to have a big performance against the Jayhawks.
Bryce Stephens, WR, Redshirt Freshman
He has eight receptions this season for 82 yards and a touchdown. The speedy Stephens made his biggest mark in the 38-27 win over Missouri State. With the Hogs trailing 27-24, Stephens took a punt 82 yards for a touchdown to give the Razorbacks their first lead of the game at 31-27. Against Mississippi State, Stephens caught two passes for 59 yards including a 54-yard touchdown from Malik Hornsby. He has averaged 9.9 yards on 15 punt returns with the one touchdown. The Hogs need him to have a big game and take some of the pressure off of Matt Landers. With Stephens’ speed he should give quarterback KJ Jefferson a legitimate deep threat against the Kansas secondary. He caught three passes for five yards as a true freshman in 2021. As a senior at Oklahoma City John Marshall High School, Stephens caught 32 passes for 686 yards (21.4 ypc) and nine touchdowns. He also had big seasons as a sophomore and junior. The talent is there and now Stephens is set to start getting the experience needed to possibly be a standout in coming years.
“He’s played a lot of ball,” Jefferson said. “Going out there, Bryce’s confidence level has risen through the roof on the offensive side of the ball, just getting him snaps early in the season. So, I feel really good about him.”
Cam Ball, DT, Redshirt Freshman
Redshirted in 2021 though he was able to play in two games recording a tackle and one quarterback hurry. This year, he played in all 12 games. Despite being a starter, he still was the leading tackler among all interior defensive linemen. He finished the season with 28 tackles, seven solo, 1.5 for loss and one quarterback hurry. There’s a strong chance Ball might have started the bowl game even with no opt outs or transfers. The former standout at Atlanta (Ga.) Tri-Cities High School is much like linebacker Pooh Paul and cornerback Quincey McAdoo. When the Hogs get a player like that they can’t allow them to enter the transfer portal and have to find a way to get them on the field. The 6-foot-5, 303-pound Ball is the future of Arkansas’ interior defensive line. As a senior in high school, he was limited to six games due to the COVID season. He had 42 tackles, six for loss, four sacks, three pass breakups, forced a fumble and recovered two. He will be a problem for the Kansas offensive line and future ones he faces in coming seasons.
“I think Cam Ball will do great,” Paul said. “Cam Ball is a great player. High energized and will run and give you his all every play. Even some time Cam Ball out there communicating with the d-line on where the checks and stuff like that should be. I’m very confident in Cam Ball. He made some great plays for us in the regular season. So I’ve got all my confidence in Cam Ball.”
Jordan Crook, LB, Freshman
A true freshman from Duncanville (Texas) High School who saw action in all 12 games this season, much of it on special teams, and recorded five tackles with four being solo. Crook is another young player who should have a very bright future at Arkansas. He has learned from Pool, Sanders and Paul this season. The fact Sam Pittman and Michael Scherer have full confidence to allow him to start shows what kind of potential they feel he has in the future. As a senior at Duncanville when he didn’t play the full games because of blowout wins, he still managed 98 tackles, 10.5 for loss, 4.5 sacks, two pass breakups, three forced fumbles and picked off a trio of passes taking a pair back for touchdowns.
“Yeah, like Crook, playing with him in the bowl game, I think that these guys have really been waiting on their opportunity to shine,” Paul said. “They’ve been putting the work in. So I’m very confident in those guys, knowing they’re going to play their best and go out there and give it their all. These past two practices, just seeing Crook fly around.”
Arkansas and Kansas will kickoff at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl which will be televised on ESPN. Both teams enter the game with 6-6 records.