Thanks to bad decisions on the part of former head coach Bob Petrino, Arkansas will be the most-watched SEC team in the early going. The Razorbacks brought in John L. Smith, who washed out of Michigan State after a successful run at Louisville. Smith was set to take over at Weber State when Petrino found himself fired due to an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate, but Arkansas reached out to its former special teams coordinator and brought him back to Fayetteville. For a team that fancies itself on the outskirts of a championship run, the fiery, oft-unpredictable Smith may or may not be what the doctor ordered. Winning a championship would also mean Smith would have to record fewer than two losses on the season – something he’s never accomplished before.
Returning Offensive Starters: 7 (WR, LT, C, RG, TE, QB, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 6 (RDT, LDT, MLB, LOLB, RCB, SS)
Returning Specialists: 2 (P, PK)
Projected Overall Record: 9-3 (UA, USC, LSU)
Projected SEC Record: 5-3 (UA, USC, LSU)
Projected SEC West Record: 4-2 (UA, LSU)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Ex Defensive Line: Fr
Running Backs: Ex Linebackers: Av
Wide Receivers: Av Defensive Backs: Av
Offensive Line: Av Special Teams: Vg
One of the reasons Smith might have been brought back is that Arkansas had to change very little about its offense during the transition. But Smith, a defensive coach by trade, isn’t going to be able to replace Petrino’s deft playcalling skills. Arkansas will base from a three-wide set and throw the ball a ton behind a veteran quarterback. Rebuilding the receiver corps and getting improvement from the offensive line will be keys to success.
QUARTERBACKS (rating: Ex; 1st SEC West, 1st overall)
Tyler Wilson hasn’t just been effective, he’s been durable. Wilson threw for 3,638 yards in 2012 and took hit after hit along the way. While Georgia’s Aaron Murray has gotten more press thanks to a larger media market, Wilson is considered by many to be the superior prospect. He makes good decisions and is hard to rattle, and has surprising mobility. Arkansas also boasts a backup with some playing experience, Brandon Marshall. Marshall is more of a runner than passer, but his throwing skills are not bad. The issue is how much quarterback Marshall will be asked to play this year, as Arkansas is trying him at receiver. Brandon Allen adds depth and is a talented redshirt freshman.
RUNNING BACKS (rating: Ex; 1st SEC West, 1st overall)
Knile Davis was fast on his way to becoming one of the SEC’s most elite running backs in 2011 when a knee injury put everything on hold. Davis is back, and if he’s healthy, a back of his size and speed is rare to find. Davis is built almost exactly like Alabama’s Eddie Lacy. The depth situation looks to be in good shape with kickoff returner Dennis Johnson and the quarterhorse-sized Ronnie Wingo Jr. also available. True freshman Jonathan Williams had a game-ready build as a high school senior. When Arkansas needs a fullback, Kiero Small can play the part, and depth there is also in good shape with Brandon Pyle and Morgan Linton available. Arkansas hasn’t always recruited well, but one couldn’t tell it by looking at the running back group.
WIDE RECEIVERS (rating: Av; 5th SEC West, 8th overall)
Although Arkansas lost two starters and a top backup after the 2011 season, the news isn’t all bad. Cobi Hamilton has starting experience thanks to Greg Childs not being able to stay healthy in the past. He returns along with Javontee Herndon and a little-known junior named Julian Horton who might be the next breakout player on this roster. He needs to be, because Marquel Wade was suspended after spring practice and doesn’t appear to be in the mix in 2012. As a result, Keante Minor and Brandon Marshall will need to step up in order to provide needed depth. Tight end looks reasonably in good hands with Chris Gragg and Austin Tate manning the spot. Don’t look for production from this unit to match 2011 levels, but it should be more than enough to keep defenses from stacking up against Davis.
OFFENSIVE LINE (rating: Av; 5th SEC West, 9th overall)
If there is a soft spot to the Arkansas offense, this is it. The line let Wilson get hit far too often in 2011 and tough as Wilson might be, he can’t take limitless shots in the pocket. In addition, other than center Travis Swanson and right guard Alvin Bailey, this group is in flux. Neither tackle position is settled. Walk-on David Hurd came out of spring ball with the job after Jason Peacock found himself suspended. Right tackle Brey Cook was a disappointment in his first year, but he’s still the best option Arkansas has. Chris Stringer backs him up. Left guard figures to come down to Tyler Deacon or maybe Luke Charpentier, who displaced Bailey for awhile in the spring. Mitch Smothers will likely be called upon to backup center and the other guard spot, as Marcus Danenhauer isn’t ready yet. The situation at tackle ought to make Arkansas fans plenty nervous.
The Razorbacks will base from a 4-3 set under Paul Haynes, trying to improve on numbers that ranked just 9th in the conference in total defense a year ago and couldn’t stop the run. Arkansas’ problem has always been a lack of talent and depth up front, and the lack of a bellcow linebacker in the middle. The latter problem might finally be solved, but the defensive line is full of questions. The secondary, at least, showed improvement in 2011.
DEFENSIVE LINE (rating: Fr; 5th SEC West; 10th overall)
The loss of DE Jake Bequette to the NFL hurts, and the move of Tenarius Wright to linebacker creates further problems fpr a group that doesn’t have the greatest depth. Chris Smith and Trey Flowers are set to start at end, with Colton Miles-Nash and Austin Flynn the primary backups. Flynn, a JUCO transfer, has potential to become a playmaker. Things are a bit better inside, where D.D. Jones, Byran Jones and Robert Thomas form a group that is essentially interchangeable. Lavunce Askew and Alfred Davis provide depth. The two Joneses bring impressive size to the table, but that didn’t stop Arkansas last year from being physically manhandled at the point of attack. Unless the Razorbacks have made great strides either in strength conditioning or technique, this could be a spot of worry.
LINEBACKERS (rating: Av; 4th SEC West; 5th overall)
Experience won’t be an issue here, at least. Tenarius Wright moves to inside linebacker from defensive end, where he should be able to use his athleticism to make more plays. Middle linebacker Alonzo Highsmith needs to show he has recovered from a weightlifting injury in the spring, but he put together a nice 2011. The question mark is the outside position, where Matt Marshall figures to have the inside track. That would give Arkansas three seniors starting at once. Austin Jones, Daunte Carr and Braylon Mitchell figure to be the three primary backups. Moving Wright to the position elevates the level of athleticism, but lingering questions about Marshall’s slot need to be answered.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (rating: Av; 4th SEC West; 7th overall)
It’s not a stretch to say that cornerback Darius Winston has yet to live up to his ability. Winston was a major recruit for Arkansas, but he’s finally getting onto the field as a full-time starter in this, his senior year. Tevin Mitchel will start opposite him; Mitchel, a freshman in 2011, has already arguably accomplished more than Winston. The safety position should be in good hands with Eric Bennett and Jerry Mitchell the most likely names. Ross Rasner worked at both strong safety and linebacker in the spring. Depth is a bit sketchy at corner, where Davyon McKinney and Kelvin Fisher Jr. lead Mississippi Valley State transfer Kaelon Kelleybrew. McKinney is a freshman.
SPECIAL TEAMS (rating: Vg; 4th SEC West, 4th overall)
There are few concerns here, certainly none with the kickers. Placekicker Zach Hocker and punter Dylan Breeding are among the conference’s best. The only question is in the return game, where the loss of Marquel Wade didn’t help. Dennis Johnson figures to still have a role, while the Razorbacks will be in the market for a new punt returner.
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