Arkansas Razorbacks: Team Overview
Returning Offensive Starters: 2 (LT, C)
Returning Defensive Starters: 6 (LDE, LDT, RDE, LCB, SS, FS)
Returning Specialists: 1 (P/PK)
Projected Overall Record: 5-7 (RU, TAM, UA, UF, USC, OM, LSU)
Projected SEC Record: 2-6 (TAM, UA, UF, USC, OM, LSU)
Projected SEC West Record: 2-4 (TAM, UA, OM, LSU)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Fr Defensive Line: Av
Running Backs: Fr Linebackers: Pr
Wide Receivers: Av Defensive Backs: Av
Offensive Line: Pr Special Teams: Av
Arkansas fans would no doubt like to surgically excise any memory of the 2012 debacle from their brains. The season started with high hopes, then saw Bob Petrino fired as head coach after lying about an affair, and finished with John L. Smith’s complete self-destruction as (what turned out to be interim) head coach. Arkansas looked poorly prepared, completely unmotivated and athletically out-classed. Now it’s up to former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema to return some semblance of competency to Fayetteville.
Arkansas is in for a big change on this side of the ball. Gone is Petrino’s three-wide passing spread attack; in is Bielema’s traditional I-formation attack. Petrino was never able to recruit the athletes he needed at offensive line; given the state of Arkansas’ recruiting limitations, perhaps Bielema is on to something. The biggest point of concern is the fact the Razorbacks return precious little experience on this side of the ball.
Right out of the gate, Bielema has a problem. Backup quarterback Brandon Mitchell left the program following spring practice, leaving Arkansas in a pinch. Sophomore Brandon Allen will start, but his redshirt freshman season was rocky to say the least. Allen has decent tools as an SEC quarterback, but he needs plenty of development yet, and will have no safety net. The backup QB job is a complete mystery. Transfer A.J. Derby may eventually land the gig, even though his spring performance wasn’t what Arkansas had hoped to see. Derby is at least big (6’5”, 230) and mobile. Allen’s eventual backup might be his own brother, Austin Allen, a true freshman, or fellow signee Damon Mitchell. Walk-on holder Brian Buehner rounds out the depth chart. Given the state of the Hogs’ offensive line, we may see several of these names under center before the year is over.
The best thing about this group is fullback Kiero Small has a position again. Small was a specialist in Petrino’s scheme, but he’ll get a featured role under Bielema. If Small rebounds well from injury, he will probably be one of the best fullbacks in the NCAA this year. But it’s questionable how good an offense can be if its featured back is a fullback. Running backs Jonathan Williams and Nate Holmes figure to be splitting most of the work, but neither of them are considered top-flight SEC backs. Williams has durability issues, which won’t get better now that Arkansas is going to a run-first scheme, and Holmes needs both bulk and better inside rushing skills. Power back Kody Walker and true freshman Alex Collins are also in the mix. Walker is a short-yardage specialist, while the coaches are hopeful that Collins gives them a true breakout talent. JUCO transfer Patrick Arinze will see action behind Small at fullback, as will Morgan Linton.
The ranking of “average” was given prior to Mekale McKay’s surprise decision last week to transfer. Arkansas would now deserve a ranking of “fair.” McKay won’t be easily replaced. He was a rare mix of size and speed, but didn’t like the direction the offense was heading in and decided to leave school. His departure will put a tremendous amount of pressure on Javontee Herndon and Demetrius Wilson. Herndon has been an important part of the playing rotation for years, but has never been the star receiver. Wilson caught only nine passes in his first season as a JUCO transfer, but impressed the new staff enough in the spring to earn a starting slot. Sophomores D’Arthur Cowan, Keon Hatcher and senior Julian Horton round out the depth chart. Recruiting was not kind to Arkansas, as the Razorbacks got only Drew Morgan in February. Tight end should be solid, with Austin Tate and Mitchell Loewen battling for the job. Alex Voelzke adds depth. There is plenty of experience within this unit, but few proven commodities.
Aside from center Travis Swanson, who dotted most preseason all-SEC ballots, this unit was a mess in 2012. Left tackle David Hurd is a former walk-on – and he’s the best of the bunch. Brey Cook is slated to start at one of the guard positions, but he has not lived up to his recruiting hype. Mitch Smothers would be a role player on most teams but he’s the other starting guard for Arkansas. Grady Ollison was running first-team at right tackle after the spring, but will battle 6’10” former Tennessee signee Dan Skipper for the job this fall. Depth is thin anywhere but center, where Luke Charpentier returns. True freshmen Reeve Koehler and Denver Kirkland might end up being the eventual backups at guard if they can unseat sophomore Austin Beck. Eventually, Arkansas will return to the Houston Nutt days of oversized road-graders along its offensive line, but this will be a transition year.
Arkansas won’t change much in scheme under Bielema. The Razorbacks will continue to operate a 4-3 alignment. What has to change is the effectiveness. Arkansas has lacked athleticism on defense for years, and mental mistakes were the norm. Arkansas looks solid up front and the secondary has experience, but the linebacker group might be the weakest in the league.
Big things are expected of this group, especially ends Chris Smith and Trey Flowers. Smith had 9.5 sacks in 2012 and Flowers can affect running games as well as passing games. In the middle, Bryan Jones and Robert Thomas give Arkansas two senior stalwarts. If there’s a problem, it’s going to come down the depth chart, where there is plenty of competition but a lot of uncertainty. Former Alabama commitment Darius Philon appears to be the third tackle, while Deatrich Wise the top reserve end. DeMarcus Hodge adds depth at tackle, while JaMichael Winston and Brandon Lewis compete at defensive end. Every reserve is an underclassman. Like at receiver, Arkansas largely struck out in recruiting defensive linemen, getting just one tackle and one end in February.
With no starters returning and a new coaching staff in town, this was open season for competition in the spring. Middle linebacker Daunte Carr and outside linebackers Jarrett Lake and Braylon Mitchell have plenty of playing experience, but now they’re expected to be leaders. Austin Jones will be the top backup outside and will push Mitchell for a starting job well into the season, while Robert Atiga backs up Carr in the middle. Otha Peters will add depth along with A.J. Turner and JUCO transfers Martrell Spaight and Myke Tavarres. Unfortunately for Bielema, he’ll have to dance this same dance next year, when Lake, Atiga and Jones graduate.
There is plenty of experience in this unit, but Arkansas’ secondaries under Petrino were famous for giving up big plays at the worst possible times, as well as making a mockery of basic tackling techniques. The Hogs have one potential star, cornerback Tevin Mitchel, and a lot of question marks. Rohan Gaines and Eric Bennett return to start at the safety positions, but both need to get a lot better going forward. Will Hines and Jared Collins will compete for the other starting cornerback job opposite Mitchel. Arkansas will lean heavily on JUCO transfer Tiquention Coleman as the top reserve safety. Depth in general needs an upgrade.
Arkansas’ biggest weapon might be its kicker, Zach Hocker. Hocker will handle placement kicks and is likely to be the punter as well, unless Australian Sam Irwin-Hill displaces him there. Hocker’s biggest asset is his leg strength, and Arkansas will likely take out the prospect of opposing kickoff returners as weapons as a result. Nate Holmes should be able to put his speed to good use as a return man, although several other players are in the mix for the job. A general lack of athletes has hampered the Hogs’ coverage units in the past.
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