FAYETTEVILLE -- Perhaps the most underdiscussed aspect of Cole Kelley's first start at quarterback for the Arkansas Razorbacks last Saturday was the freshman's mental preparation.
Alabama's difficult to decipher defense with Coach Nick Saban and coordinator Jeremy Pruitt calculating every move, baits a quarterback with presnap looks, then spring traps with coverage switches, line twists or unexpected blitz packages.
Saban said the game plan against Kelley was to apply pressure, and the Crimson Tide brought it in near-continuous waves, with all the wrinkles and flourishes.
Kelley, 6-7, 268 pounds, glitched a few times -- throwing an interception thrown into traffic, a bad short-pass decision in the two-minute drill before halftime, holding the ball too long a couple of times, throwing off his back foot, and firing a few balls with too much velocity .
But Kelley processed reads properly and held up strong through five sacks and many other hits.
"Honestly, I didn't think I would say this, but I think my confidence is even higher than it usually is," said Kelley, who is expected to make his second start on Saturday against No. 21 Auburn at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. "Just to get that first whole game in and the way we started to do some things offensively, I think my confidence is even higher than it was before the Alabama game."
Kelley completed 23 of 42 passes for 200 yards, with 1 touchdown and 1 interception, and he did it in front of the pressure cooker of more than 101,000 fans at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
"He communicated well and made plays," Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos said. "Obviously when you play a defense of that caliber there will be some mistakes. But we can clean that up, so I thought he played very well."
"This is my 27th year with quarterbacks and ... I can tell a lot about a guy by how he's communicating with me," Enos said. "His mindset, his demeanor, what he's seeing and what he's not seeing.
"I was talking to a very poised, confident player that the moment wasn't too big for him. He was communicating with me clearly what he was seeing, and he was seeing what was happening. He was making good decisions."
Enos said Alabama's defense is good at forcing quarterbacks into misreads and mistakes.
"They are very fast and very physical and they're very complicated," Enos said. "They do a great job presnap showing you one thing and then when the ball is snapped, showing you something different. I thought Cole responded, and handled those things as well as any freshman in his first start would do."
Kelley operated well in a hurry-up tempo, which limited Alabama's substitutions, though Coach Bret Bielema said the Hogs would likely vary their pace with Kelley at quarterback.
"It was something we were able to capitalize and use with Cole that truly gives him our entire offense but at a tempo," Bielema said. "And then we also went before the end of the half with 2-minute, which is primarily one offensive package with a huge emphasis in the throw game. They both look similar, and it's something that I think we're excited with the way Cole handled it."
The Razorbacks made major adjustments in week 6 to juice up their offense. Kelley was working behind a revamped offensive line, with juniors Brian Wallace and Zach Rogers inserted into the starting lineup to pair with Johnny Gibson, Frank Ragnow and Hjalte Froholdt. Only Froholdt, the left guard, was playing the same position he held the previous week.
Alabama stayed on top receiver Jonathan Nance, so Kelley completed 14 passes to the trio of Deon Stewart, Jordan Jones and Brandon Martin for 171 yards, including a 46-yard strike on a deep post to Jones and a 3-yard slant pass touchdown to Jones in tight coverage. Stewart, Jones and Martin had combined for 20 receptions in the first five weeks.
"We've got some great athletes out there," Kelley said of his connections with the Jones and Martin in particular. "It's been fun. They're pretty young too, so that's always a plus."
Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn said his team is preparing for either Kelley or senior Austin Allen, who is questionable with an injury to his right shoulder. He noted the difference in Arkansas' offense with Kelley, with a faster tempo and less run game against the Crimson Tide.
"They're throwing it a little bit more than they have," Malzahn said. "That new quarterback that they have is a big guy, and I think he did some good things."
The Razorbacks drove inside the Alabama 15 on three occasions and came away with a touchdown, a field goal and an incomplete pass as the clock went to all zeroes at the end of the first half.
"The times we got the ball down inside their 5-yard line ... that was because of Cole Kelley," Enos said.
Kelley compared the preparation he did for the Alabama game to that of his work for the stout Auburn defense, which ranks No. 13 overall, No. 9 in scoring, No. 17 against the pass and No. 25 against the run.
"Auburn's defense is very similar to Alabama's structurally and physicality wise," Kelley said. "They have a bunch of big, athletic guys too. So I mean my preparation has been just about the same as it was last week."
The youth movement for the Hogs is undeniable, as the freshmen Kelley and Jordan Jones joined Bielema on his radio show on Thursday.
RECORDS Arkansas 2-4, 0-3 SEC; Auburn 5-2, 3-1
BETTING LINE Auburn favored by 14½
COACHES Bret Bielema (27-30 in fifth year at Arkansas, 95-54 in 12th year overall); Gus Malzahn (40-20 in fifth year at Auburn, 49-23 in sixth year overall)
SERIES Auburn leads 14-11-1
Enos said he thought Kelley might play well against Alabama, and he wasn't disappointed.
"I said this last week, you don't get any of those experiences in a quarterback meeting room," Enos said. "You don't get them from practice really. You get them from the heat of the battle in the moment playing the No. 1 team in the nation on the road and all the experience he gets is good for his future."
Sports on 10/20/2017
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