Arkansas preview: Razorbacks in transition, Alabama looking for domination

 

Sep 28, 2013; Fayetteville, AR, USA; Arkansas Razorbacks head coach Bret Bielema reacts to a call during the second quarter against the Texas A&M Aggies at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 28, 2013; Fayetteville, AR, USA; head coach reacts to a call during the second quarter against the Aggies at Donald W. Reynolds Stadium. Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

 

By , TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief

Oct. 14, 2013

 

For fans who appreciate nostalgia, they’ll get plenty of it when comes to town this week.

 

Why? Because they’ll swear Danny Ford was back in Fayetteville.

 

Bret Bielema took over the Arkansas program this spring after John L. Smith was mercifully let go after a season that could justifiably be called the most disappointing – relative to expectations – in the history of Arkansas football. The Razorbacks were coming off a string of high-scoring seasons under Bob Petrino, and the program was threatening to punch into the elite of the SEC West.

 

And then Bob Petrino got in a motorcycle accident, got caught lying about an affair and was relieved of his duties as the Razorback head coach. The coach of the Hogs had been thrown off his Hog and was found to have been acting like a pig.

 

Smith did his best to hold the program together, but things went south in a hurry after Louisiana-Monroe upset the Razorbacks. The finger-pointing started immediately, Smith seemed to lose the locker room and Arkansas limped to a 4-8 finish, with the most impressive win of the year coming over Tulsa. Tulsa.

 

Unfortunately, last year’s 4-8 record might end up being a two-year high-water mark. Arkansas is 3-4, but finishes with games against Alabama, Auburn, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and LSU. The Razorbacks will likely be underdogs in all five.

 

Bielema’s first order of business was to find a fullback and begin reinstalling a power-I formation, after several years of a passing spread attack. The installation has not gone smoothly, thanks mostly to injuries at the quarterback position and a disappointing offensive line. Defensively, the Razorbacks have been more aggressive, and sack numbers are up accordingly, but for the most part it’s been chapter twenty of the same story that has plagued Arkansas football for almost two decades: Mediocre recruiting has led to a mediocre athleticism and a lack of depth on both sides of the ball.

 

Bielema will probably make the Razorbacks better in time, but he must recruit better than his predecessors. In the interim, Arkansas can do little more than try to keep games close and hope for a bevy of turnovers along the way.

 

OFFENSE

 

There is nothing multiple about the Arkansas offense. It is I-based, power football to the core, and when that doesn’t work, there is no Plan B. Arkansas is 91st in total offense despite being 24th in rushing offense. That’s because the Hogs rank a dismal 113th in passing offense, 12th out of 14 teams in the SEC. While Arkansas has reached the 30-point barrier three times this year, once was against Division-IAA Samford, once was against Louisiana-Lafayette and the most recent time was against a Texas A&M team that couldn’t stop a group of octogenarians from boarding a city bus. Alabama counters with its multiple, pro-style attack that racked up 668 yards against Kentucky last week and is starting to fire on all cylinders. Alabama ranks 44th in total offense, 50th in rushing offense and 45th in passing offense.

 

QUARTERBACKS

’s 2013 season has been full of trials and tribulations. Allen was hurt early in the season, but has been largely ineffective before and after the injury. He’s 64-of-133 (48.1%) for the year, throwing for 864 yards, 8 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. There were questions about his arm strength and offensive acumen before the season, as he looked less than spectacular in 2012 in relief of . Allen isn’t particularly mobile (he’s averaging minus-0.4 yards per rush, with sack yardage included) and his field vision is decidedly below the midpoint for SEC starters. Backup A.J. Derby (18-of-34, 52.9%, 173 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT) is about on the same level as Allen, ability-wise. Alabama counters with (111-for-161, 68.9%, 1,407 yards, 11 TD, 3 INT), who has rewritten or will soon rewrite most every major school passing mark. McCarron and Allen might have similar overall styles, but Allen is essentially the 70-percent version of McCarron. Backup Blake (16-of-21, 76.2%, 154 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT) is developing nicely in his role, and would probably start at Arkansas. This is no contest. Advantage: Alabama

 

RUNNING BACKS

True freshman Alex Collins has been a revelation for Arkansas. Collins has rushed 123 times for 720 yards (5.9 avg.) and 4 touchdowns, and is, basically, the Arkansas offense. There is good depth on the Arkansas side, with Jonathan Williams (87 carries, 564 yards, 6.5 avg., 4 TD) a more than capable backup. Nate Holmes adds experience off the bench, but he’s carried the ball only 6 times, as Arkansas essentially runs a two-man rotation at tailback much the same way Alabama does. The Razorbacks are one of the few teams to operate with a full-time fullback, and Kiero Small (24 carries, 96 yards, 4.0 avg., 0 TD) is a weapon there. Small goes around 250 pounds on a 5’10” frame and is a capable blocker. Kody Walker backs him up. Alabama will counter with tailbacks T.J. Yeldon and . Together, they’ve gained only about 100 yards more than Alex Collins alone has for the Razorbacks, and both are different players in terms of style. Yeldon is taller and leaner than Collins, while Drake is a speed back who just happens to have decent size. Jalston Fowler will play a hybrid H-back/fullback role for Alabama, and Dee Hart, and Derrick Henry provide depth. This is a difficult unit to call. Yeldon has the best career resume of the bunch, but what Collins and Williams have done despite having nothing else around them – and that includes a competent offensive line – is nothing short of astounding. Like Alabama’s backs, Arkansas’ unit is good in the passing game. The fullback situation is a decided Arkansas edge, but depth favors Alabama. Given the recent issues with ball security for Alabama’s top two backs, however, Arkansas gets this nod in a close call. Advantage: Arkansas

 

WIDE RECEIVERS

Arkansas lost its best receiver, Mekale McKay, in the preseason over a dispute about offensive style. Javontee Herndon was right on his heels, though, and has put together a solid 2013 campaign (18 catches, 288 yards, 16.0 avg., 4 TD). As far as wideouts go, that’s pretty much it. Keon Hatcher has caught 11 balls for 125 yards (11.4 avg.) and 1 touchdown, but he’s the only other receiver in double digits. The next-most productive wideout has been Julian Horton with 6 catches for 57 yards (9.5 avg.) and no scores. But true freshman tight end Hunter Henry has been a pleasant surprise, netting 14 catches for 276 yards (19.7 avg.) and 1 TD. Alabama counters with its group of Kenny Bell, , , and , and all are proven playmakers. Jones, whose role has expanded to include running the football and operating out of the backfield, has been the surprise playmaker on this year’s team. Tight ends and Brian Vogler are both capable in the passing game, and depth at receiver extends to names like Chris Black, Parker Barrineau and Raheem Falkins. Herndon is doing a great job given the issues at quarterback, but the lack of productivity around him is troubling for Arkansas fans. Advantage: Alabama

 

OFFENSIVE LINE

Bielema would dearly love to trade what he has now for any of Houston Nutt’s offensive lines. The talent currently on campus was brought in to run the pass-happy spread attack of Petrino, but now is being asked to move the pile for a power running attack. The results, so far, have been spotty. Arkansas has done a good job of avoiding sacks (5 surrendered, which ranks 2nd in the SEC and 10th nationally) but has often let its quarterbacks be pressured, while the running game has put up good per-carry numbers, but is having trouble in the red zone. Center Travis Swanson is one of the SEC’s best, but there have been issues at the guard slots, where Brey Cook and Mitch Smothers have been pushed by Denver Kirkland, a true freshman. Grady Ollison and Dan Skipper continue to fight for right tackle, while David Hurd, a former walk-on, starts at left tackle. All of these are likely to see time against Alabama. The Crimson Tide is coming off its best line performance of the year so far. Chad Lindsay will start at center with Arie Kouandjio and at the guards and at left tackle. Austin Shepherd still looks like the starter at right tackle, although freshman is beginning to make inroads at that position. Kellen Williams will be the primary backup at the other four positions, but if Alabama gets a big lead, expect to see Isaac Luatua, Leon Brown and Alphonse Taylor as well. Alabama’s line has been the most erratic part of the team thus far, but the overall talent is much higher than on the Razorback side of the ball, and despite Hill pushing Shepherd at right tackle, Alabama has better continuity and depth. Advantage: Alabama

 

DEFENSE

 

The Razorbacks continue to field the familiar 4-3 front that Petrino and Nutt both used. The line – thought since the preseason to be the strength of the Arkansas team – has not disappointed. Arkansas leads the league in sacks and is 16th in the country in the stat. Total defense is just OK (44th), while rushing defense is an acceptable 49th. But problems at linebacker and the secondary have conspired to rank the Razorbacks 92nd in pass efficiency defense and 52nd in raw pass defense. The linebackers get caught up in trash too often and do a poor job getting off blocks. Alabama will use its familiar 3-4 over/under scheme, and in this game, might actually go to the base 3-4 look to combat the Razorback rushing attack after spending most of the year in 4-2-5/3-3-5 alignments. Alabama has hit its stride defensively, ranking 8th in total defense, 7th in rushing defense, 21st in raw pass defense and 30th in pass efficiency defense.

 

DEFENSIVE LINE

Ends Chris Smith (8 sacks) and Trey Flowers (8.5 sacks) have been terrors off the corner, getting to the quarterback and wreaking general havoc. Tackles Robert Thomas and Darius Philon, at 6 sacks each, have joined in the fun, although Thomas will miss this game. This is a deep squad with good athleticism that can create problems for even the best offensive lines. Byran Jones and DeMarcus Hodge add depth at tackle, while Deatrich Wise Jr. and Brandon Lewis bolster the end slots. Alabama’s line has been one of the most underrated factors in the Crimson Tide’s success. Largely because of the differences in scheme, Alabama’s line doesn’t have the sack numbers Arkansas has put up, but true freshman A’Shawn Robinson is quickly becoming one of the most feared linemen in the SEC. He’ll rotate with Ed Stinson and Jeoffrey Pagan at end, while Brandon Ivory and Darren Lake man the nosetackle slot. , LaMichael Fanning and Anthony Orr offer depth outside, while Korren Kirven helps out at the nose. Both units are top-flight, but Arkansas gets the nod based on productivity to this point. Advantage: Arkansas

 

LINEBACKERS

Although Jarrett Lake and Braylon Mitchell lead the team in tackles from this unit, linebacker has been – to put it kindly – under construction. Lake and Mitchell have combined for only 2 tackles for loss from the weak and strongside positions, respectively, while the middle linebacker position has rotated between a handful of players. True freshman Martrell Spaight seems to have the highest ceiling, but he needs to get more consistent. Daunte Carr, Austin Jones and Otha Peters will help out both in the middle and at the outside spots. Alabama will start and Trey DePriest inside, with Xzavier Dickson, and Denzel Devall rotating at the outside linebacker spots. Mosley is the best linebacker in the SEC and one of the best, if not the best overall in America. Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams and Dillon Lee provide depth outside, while Tana Patrick, Reggie Ragland and Reuben Foster bolster the middle. There is as much difference between these two units as there is between the respective teams’ quarterback groups. Advantage: Alabama

 

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Arkansas returned four starters to the secondary, but it only served to question whether experience was a good thing if the players weren’t all that good. The Razorbacks’ best player is cornerback Tevin Mitchell, who has done a good job in 2013. The rest of the unit? Not so much. Will Hines will start at the off corner, with Rohan Gaines, Alan Turner and Eric Bennett at safety. Carroll Washington gives Arkansas some experience off the bench at corner, while Tiquention Coleman is another option at safety. Alabama will start Vinnie Sunseri and at safety, as Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix is still suspended, with Jarrick Williams and Geno Smith providing depth there and staffing the nickel and dime safety slots. Deion Belue gets the call at one corner position, with either Eddie Jackson or Bradley Sylve starting opposite him, depending on the health of Jackson’s ankle. John Fulton, Maurice Smith and provide depth at corner. Even without Clinton-Dix, Alabama has more playmaking ability, better depth and a better track record. Advantage: Alabama

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Both teams have strong units, especially at the kicking positions themselves. Zach Hocker has been one of the SEC’s better kickers for a couple of years, and this season he’s perfect on all field goal attempts. He also has solid range, and is a capable punter who can pooch punt off long field goal formations. JUCO punter Sam Irwin-Hill has a cannon for a leg, and is also a weapon on fake kicks, being able to throw the ball as well as run it. Alabama counters with Cade Foster at placekicker and Cody Mandell at punter. Mandell is the SEC’s best at his position, while Foster is putting together a solid senior year. Even so, Arkansas might hold the edge thanks to Hocker’s superior experience at placekicker – until you add in the return game. Arkansas ranks 83rd in punt returns and 99th in kickoff returns, and while the Razorbacks have been solid in kickoff coverage, punt coverage has been lacking. Alabama ranks 14th in punt returns and 27th in kickoff returns, and both coverage teams have been among the best around. With the talent Arkansas has at the kicking slots, the Razorbacks can be dangerous. Alabama is just a bit better all-around. Advantage: Alabama

 

OVERALL

 

Alabama leads in six categories, Arkansas in two. Both Arkansas leads are fairly slim, however, and Alabama holds big edges in linebacker, defensive back, wide receiver and quarterback. Both teams’ defensive line control their respective OL-DL matchups, with Alabama holding the larger margin in a comparison of its DL to Arkansas’ OL.

 

It’s important to note that, despite Arkansas’ struggles, this is not Kentucky. This is a team that had decent talent on-hand heading into 2012 before Petrino’s fall from grace, and while there are holes in this program to be sure, Arkansas is much more dangerous at certain spots (defensive line, running back) than the Wildcats could ever have hoped to have been.

 

On the other hand, Arkansas has real problems. The linebacker group is simply not SEC quality. The defensive backfield lacks playmakers. These have been issues for several years for Arkansas, and the refusal (or inability) to address them in recruiting has left the Razorbacks decidedly in the conference’s second tier – or worse.

 

There are two ways Alabama could lose this game, although neither seem likely. The first is that the Arkansas offensive line plays the game of its life, allowing the Razorbacks to run at will and keep Alabama from keeping enough defenders assigned to stopping the passing game. The other is simply if Alabama fails to show up mentally. Upsets happen all the time, but these two teams are nearly at polar opposites at the moment.

 

Arkansas’ ball-control abilities should at least keep the score from getting ugly early, but it would be a minor surprise if Blake Sims doesn’t finish this game under center for Alabama, running out the clock while McCarron and friends look on and plan for a rivalry game against Tennessee the following week.

 

Alabama 34

Arkansas 10

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