FAYETTEVILLE — Hands down, 2-year letterman Zach Williams says he’ll be a better Arkansas Razorbacks defensive end than previously.
“I think I’ve made my biggest gains probably pass rushing because I’m starting to use my hands a bit more,” Williams said Tuesday evening after the Razorbacks 13th of their 15 spring football practices. “I remember last year most of the time I’d just bull-rush. But now I’m actually starting to use my hands. I feel I can get a little bit better at that but I’ve gotten a lot better since last year.”
The junior via Little Rock’s Joe T. Robinson High hands much credit to new defensive line coach Jermial Ashley.
“Yes sir, mainly Coach Ashley,” Williams said. “He’s a lot different than our last coach. He’s fiery. He’s a lot more young. You can relate to him. He just teaches you different setups and different moves that you can do. He just shows you how to actually place your hands when you’re striking full speed and stuff like that. A lot of the stuff I’ve learned is from Coach Ashley.”
In fairness. Ashley had a spring to work with Williams which last year’s brand new staff under Sam Pittman didn’t have as the covid-19 pandemic cancelled all 2020 spring athletics.
So in his three Razorbacks seasons, the son of former Ken Hatfield era Razorbacks starting linebacker Rickey Williams has had his first-ever spring football practices.
“Last year, it (no spring drills) did hold us back with technique because we’ve been months and months without proper technique and doing it, learning it,” Williams said. “We were all set back with our technique, like how to read stuff, using our hands and I feel like since we didn’t have that, we probably weren’t as good with it last year. This year, with the (spring) practices, we’ve just been emphasizing technique and everything else. I feel like we’ve made strides on that.
It helps, too, that he can finally throw his weight around.
Williams, 6-4, recalled reporting as a 200-pound freshman for the 2019 Chad Morris regime and playing at 240 last year for Pittman.
“ Right now I’m 264 and I’m probably trying to gain two more pounds by the season,” Williams said. “I think I can do that.”
Has the added weight slowed him any?
“I don’t feel a difference,” Williams said. “I still feel like I’m 200 pounds like before I first got here.”
Adding size and keeping his speed surely improves confidence?
“Oh, I’m a lot more confident,” Williams said. “I was always the underweight one, but I’m finally starting to pick up my weight and get stronger, and I can actually throw people around if I need to. And also with my technique, coming from high school I didn’t really have that much technique because I just used my God-given ability. But now, all the different coaches I’ve had, I”ve picked up something from them, each one by one. And I feel like I’m just stacking it together and coming up with my own technique myself, and I just feel more comfortable with that. I feel like I’m getting better.”
Adding the weight isn’t enough without adding technique going against offensive tackle Myron Cunningham in practice.
Reporting for an extra senior year since NCAA deference to the 2020 pandemic restored all 2020 eligibility into 2021, Cunningham, 6-6, has bulked to 325 after lettering two seasons in the 280s and 290s.
“Myron is great with his hands,” Williams said. “You’ve got to make sure you get correct hand placement with him because if not he’ll just grab on to you and he’s a big boy. There’s no way of getting off of that. I think the best thing with him is his hands. He’s pretty good with them.”
Getting better, anyway, Cunningham, also media available Tuesday, asserted.
“I would say from a technical aspect I’m just trying to work on hand placement, my eyes, my reads of the defense pre-snap, and just footwork at this weight,” Cunningham said. “I’ve got to get back to just moving quick like I used to, but that’s about it.”
As he gets used to the extra weight, Cunningham said he appreciates it, especially since running the ball on third and three has become a major offensive objective.
“I feel like it’s only going to help me being at that weight this season,” Cunningham said. “We’ve become a more physical offensive line,” Cunningham said. “I think we’ve definitely made major strides in that aspect of the game.”
Cunningham and Williams each were asked what they sought to gain individually and as a team from Saturday’s 2 p.m. open free to the public Red-White intrasquad game at Reynolds Razorback Stadium completing spring drills as the 15th practice date.
“ Really, individually I want to make a statement how much better I’ve gotten from last year,” Williams said. “I want to show people that I’ve actually gained weight and am starting to get better with my technique.”
And as a team?
“Collectively I just want to actually show people that we’ve been working over these past three weeks,” Williams said, “And that the thing from last year (winning three SEC games after winning one in 2017 and none in 2018 and 2019) was great but it has no comparisons with what they are going to see this upcoming season.”
Cunningham expressed similar observations.
“Individually I just look to show what I’ve been working on this whole spring, just technical aspect improvements,” Cunningham said. “And as a team, we just want to put on a good performance, show what we’ve been working on, just polish everything up – the run game, the passing game – and just show that we’re ready to compete this fall.”
The Razorbacks have a Thursday practice remaining before Saturday’s spring game wrapup.