FAYETTEVILLE — Despite the Arkansas Razorbacks’ SEC struggling running game coming alive…
Despite all five of the Razorbacks preseason touted wide receivers each catching from one to four pivotal Austin Allen passes…
Despite the Razorbacks defensively playing by far their best game of this season against the most explosive offense they have played all season…
Despite all that, a punter was voted Arkansas’ Crip Hall winner as its most outstanding senior in its homecoming game.
Toby Baker was voted the Crip Hall honor for the 34-30 SEC West victory over the then 12th-ranked Ole Miss Rebels last Saturday night before 73,786 at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
He earned it and conceivably could have earned it even with underclassmen like sophomore running back Rawleigh Williams and his 180 rushing yards been eligible for the award.
Baker wielded that kind of impact. He averaged 46.2 on his five punts including a 53-yarder with Arkansas backed to its 12, and a 54-yarder backing the Rebels to their 12. He also pooched a 38-yarder fair caught at the Ole Miss 10 and a 37-yarder fair caught at the Ole Miss five. He just missed having a 49-yarder downed at the Ole Miss it rolled into the end zone for a touchback to the 20.
“I know that one that bounced into the end zone, but that could have been downed on the 1-yard line,” Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema said.
Against an Ole Miss offense that scored 43 points and amassed 433 yards in a 48-43 loss to No. 1 Alabama, Baker consistently insured Ole Miss star senior quarterback Chad Kelly would have a long way for his Rebels to score.
Even that didn’t always stop Kelly, he quarterbacked the halftime tying 20-20 90-yard touchdown drive in 5 plays and 48 seconds, but it slowed him down enough for Arkansas to prevail.
During Saturday’s postgame press conference, Bielema was asked, ‘What about your kicker?”.
“He’s not a kicker,” Bielema said of Baker’s job description preference. “He wants to be called a punter.”
Bielema might call Baker “King” if he keeps booming 50-plus whether helped or hindered by the wind.
“That was into the wind,” Bielema said of a Baker boomer. “That was a huge hit.”
Defensive line coach Rory Segrest still coaches the punters and kickers. But tight ends coach Barry Lunney this season oversees the punt team with 2015 special teams coach Jemal Singleton moved on to coaching the Indianapolis Colts’ running backs in the NFL.
Lunney installed Baker like the punt team’s quarterback, Bielema implied.
“He’s really incorporated Toby into the plan each week,” Bielema said. “We hadn’t done that before. Ever since we’ve done that he (Baker) raised his performance even higher. We say ‘We want this many yards, this amount of hang time.’ He’s even exceeded it sometimes.”
Last year Bielema was apprehensive about his then walk-on from Memphis replacing graduated 2-year letterman Sam Irwin-Hill as Arkansas’ punter.
After redshirting as a freshman during Bielema’s 2013 debut season, Baker in 2014 punted once in Irwin-Hill’s stead during a 45-17 nonconference homecoming rout of Alabama-Birmingham.
His 36-yard, no-hang time line drive was returned about as far as it was kicked.
Bielema’s 2015 trust blossomed when Baker punted 10 times against Alabama with none blocked and five downed inside the 20.
“I give a lot of credit to Toby Baker,” Bielema said. “He’s a self-made man. He was a walk-on (since put on scholarship) that just kept plugging ahead. He’s relentless.”
Incidentally, while Baker doesn’t call himself a kicker the Razorbacks now have one that does.
First supplanting scholarship sophomore place-kicker Cole Hedlund two games ago against Alabama while kicking 3 of 3 PAT’s and a 25-yard field goal, senior walk-on Adam McFain of Greenwood excelled against Ole Miss.
McFain was 4 of 4 on PAT’s, pivotal because Ole Miss kicker Gary Wunderlich, 108 on 108 previous PATs, missed the first of his four PAT’s Saturday. McFain now is 3 of 3 on field goals, kicking 43- and 36-yard field goals, against Ole Miss. They are the longest and third longest Arkansas field goals successfully kicked this season.
17 AND CLIMBING
In both the Associated Press and Amway Coaches polls, the Razorbacks’ victory over Ole Miss rose them from 22nd to 17th while improving their overall and SEC records to 5-2 and 1-2.
Ole Miss dropped from 12th to 22nd.
Although idle last Saturday, the Auburn Tigers, 4-2, 1-2 in the SEC West, advanced from 24th to 21st in the AP poll and cracked the Coaches Top 25 at 24th.
Auburn hosts Arkansas in Saturday’s 5 p.m. game at its Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala. It will be televised by ESPN.