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Freshman defender ahead of curve already

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Photographs by David Gottschalk

Arkansas cornerback Korey Hernandez goes through practice Thursday, July 27, 2017, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE -- In the fall of 2005, Curtis Hernandez asked his 6-year-old son Korey what sport he wanted to play in southeast Atlanta.

Korey Hernandez, who had just returned from visiting his grandmother in Trinidad and Tobago, the native country of both of his parents, said football, as in the international style he experienced in the Caribbean.

Korey Hernandez glance

CLASS Freshman

POSITION Defensive back

HEIGHT/WEIGHT

HOMETOWN Atlanta, Ga.

HIGH SCHOOL Cedar Grove

AGE 18 (born Nov. 10, 1998)

NOTEWORTHY Early enrollee who played multiple positions for Georgia Class 3A state champion as a senior. … Recorded 64 tackles, 27 pass breakups, 2 forced fumbles and 3 interceptions as a senior while earning all-region honors. … Posted more than 1,000 all-purpose yards as a receiver, kick returner and punt returner. … Ranked as the No. 8 cornerback in Georgia and No. 26 in the South by Scout. … Ranked as the No. 91 player in Georgia by ESPN and No. 98 by Rivals. … Cousins include Jordan Eastling, a defensive back at Texas State, and Andre Brown Jr., a defensive back at Indiana. … Chose Arkansas over Georgia Tech, Iowa, Maryland, South Florida, Wake Forest and others.

"At a young age, I was thinking football as in soccer," Hernandez said. "So he took me to the little recreation park right up the street from where we stayed. He had signed me up, so I was like, 'Let's go play football.'

"I was good at it when I was young and I just kept going and kept going and now I'm here."

[HOG FUTURES: Stories, photos of all the new members of the Razorback team]

Here is the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, where the 5-10, 180-pound Hernandez enrolled in January and went through spring drills with his eye on making an early impact in the Razorbacks' secondary.

"I'll put it like this, it'll be hard to find a kid who will out-work him," said Alfred Kitchen, Hernandez's long-time mentor and his youth league coach in Atlanta.

"If you talked to the coaches, they'll probably tell you he's trying to get up front right now with the upperclassmen."

Hernandez fell in love with the sport while playing defense in pee-wee ball.

"I was a headhunter back then," Hernandez said. "... All I used to do is hit."

Hernandez broadened his abilities from there. He was a quarterback beginning in middle school, then developed into an all-around skill athlete at Cedar Grove High, which won Georgia's Class 3A state championship last year.

In a 40-0 victory over Columbia Decatur, Hernandez displayed his versatility by scoring on a kickoff return to open the game, blocking a punt and recovering it in the end zone and catching a 29-yard touchdown pass. He also brought an interception back 46 yards to the 15-yard line in the same game.

Hernandez graduated from high school early so he could go through spring drills with the Razorbacks.

"I'm already ahead on the playbook, already ahead on what they expect in the fall," Hernandez said midway through summer. "I got a jump on everything. I'm more comfortable than the freshmen who are coming in now."

The Razorbacks liked what they saw out of Hernandez in the spring.

"He's smart," senior defensive back Kevin Richardson said. "Coming in early, he did everything he could do to learn.

"He's taking advantage of every opportunity he gets on the field. It's showing. He's really talented and it's going to show in the playing time he gets."

Coach Bret Bielema said in the spring that the freshman was opening eyes.

"I think Korey Hernandez is in a position to help us," Bielema said. "He's been very, very good at corner."

Hernandez said he would much rather play as a freshman than redshirt.

"I've never stayed on the bench since maybe ninth grade or before that," he said. "It would feel kind of funny to redshirt. So I don't care, wherever I can help, I want to play."

Kitchen said Hernandez's assets start in the classroom.

"He's a good student and he got very good grades," Kitchen said. "He's going to push. Out of all the kids I've coached, he's one of the ones I think can contribute right off the bat, year one.

"He's intelligent. Most kids have a problem picking up the playbook. He's going to pick up the playbook. He played quarterback and he's a very bright kid."

Hernandez just missed out on a chance to play against his best friend and cousin last year against Texas State. Kitchen's son, Jordan Eastling, was a freshman defensive back for the Bobcats, who lost 42-3 to the Razorbacks on Sept. 17.

Hernandez said the key selling point on Arkansas came when his mother Yolande Caine gave her approval.

"When I brought my mom up here, she fell in love with it," he said. "At first she didn't want me to go this far and she wanted me to be around family and stuff like that.

"Once she finally came up here she realized this can be a family and that she can trust me in the hands of the staff up here. That was really the moment. When she bought into it, that was when I was 100 percent in."

Hernandez said continuous studying of the defensive schemes and trying to keep his weight up are two key areas of his summer plan.

"I want to stay over 180 and definitely know the front and back of the whole playbook and just continue to work and get better," Hernandez said.

"I want to work more on my technique. I didn't play a lot of corner in high school. I'm working on more of becoming a true corner and reacting more and playing off my talent and technique."

Hernandez said he's already had his welcome to the SEC moments with the Hogs.

"I had a couple of receivers run by me and that normally didn't happen in high school," he said, pointing out the receivers as Jordan Jones and La'Michael Pettway."

Hernandez said his versatility as a defensive back should help him in the rotation.

"I'm kind of like a hybrid," he said. "I can do everything all over the field. I can blitz. I can cover the slot, cover the outside man. Anything that any position needs to do in the defensive backfield, I feel like I can do it."

Sports on 08/11/2017

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