Arkansas enters Year Two of the Bret Bielema era, and if things go as expected, there might not be a Year Three. Arkansas finished 3-9 in 2013, losing its last nine games of the season. The same won’t happen this year – but that’s only because UAB is sitting parked in the middle of the schedule. Outside of running back and offensive line, the Hogs return little experience and even less talent. This is a team that has fallen clearly behind the other six teams in the SEC West.
Returning Offensive Starters: 5 (LT, RG, RT, TE, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 5 (RDE, RDT, SLB, LCB, SS)
Returning Specialists: 1 (P)
Projected Overall Record: 3-9 (UA, AU, TTU, TAM, UGA, MSU, LSU, OM, UM)
Projected SEC Record: 0-8 (UA, AU, TAM, UGA, MSU, LSU, OM, UM)
Projected SEC West Record: 0-6 (UA, AU, TAM, MSU, LSU, OM)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Fr Defensive Line: Fr
Running Backs: Vg Linebackers: Fr
Wide Receivers: Pr Defensive Backs: Av
Offensive Line: Av Special Teams: Av
Arkansas runs a smash-mouth, I-formation attack that puts a premium on running the football. It’s old-school, and definitely against the grain as far as trends go, but a pro-style attack only really works when a team has the talent to execute. Arkansas doesn’t. The Razorbacks are bereft of a competent passing game, and Bielema’s staff looked more than a little overwhelmed during its first season in the SEC.
The Allen brothers are the clear leaders at this position, but Brandon Allen has had injury issues in the past and Austin Allen is unproven. Even when healthy, Brandon Allen is just average as an SEC quarterback. He doesn’t have the arm to really hammer throws in as required in a pro-style attack, and his decision-making skills are suspect. His size is also just average for an SEC quarterback, but brother Austin is even smaller, and was a clear No. 2 with no sign of pushing Brandon Allen for playing time. Signee Rafe Peavey comes in with an impressive resume but has no experience at all yet.
One area in which Arkansas takes no back seat to the competition is the running back group, where Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins will split time. As evidence of their talent, Williams and Collins both were mentioned on many preseason all-SEC ballots. Both are powerful, fast runners who can move the pile and keep drives going. The key for Collins will be to cut down on the mental mistakes; if he can do that, he has limitless potential. Arkansas is one of the few teams for whom the fullback is a big deal, so eyes will be on Kody Walker and Patrick Arinze as they fight to replace Kiero Small. As far as depth goes, tailback Korliss Marshall has been lighting up fall camp, and he offers a speed option that Collins doesn’t have and Williams only has to a minor degree.
This could be a real problem spot. Arkansas wanted to rely on Javontee Herndon last year, but Herndon wasn’t up to the challenge of stepping up from role player to featured receiver – and now he’s gone. The leading returning receiver is tight end Hunter Henry, which at least points to Henry’s ability to give Arkansas a play-action element to its offense. But it’s had news for a quarterback group that needs playmakers. Keon Hatcher will have to step up his game, but the real interest is in true freshmen JoJo Robinson and Jared Cornelius. They’ll get every opportunity to unseat journeyman veteran Demetrius Wilson, who hasn’t proven much. Jeremy Sprinkle and converted quarterback A.J. Derby give Arkansas good depth at the tight end slot, but without better options at receiver, this could be a long year.
If Arkansas gets the mix right, this could be a solid unit. The right side appears set with Brey Cook at tackle and Denver Kirkland at guard, while longtime backup center Mitch Smothers becomes the starter. If Cook can get more consistent, the right side, with the tight end helping, could be a force in the run-blocking game. Left tackle Dan Skipper looks like a future star, but there’s a gaping hole at left guard. Luke Charpentier appears to be the favorite at the moment, but Grady Ollison and JUCO transfer Sebastian Tretola are also in the mix along with Jonathan McClure. Austin Beck will back up the tackle slots with help from, most likely, a true freshman. Brian Wallace has a promising resume.
Arkansas will be in the same, familiar 4-3 set that it has used for years. The problem is, it’s been a bad defense for some time, graduation hit the front seven hard, and recruiting hasn’t been up to snuff. It will take miraculous improvement for Arkansas to be much better – if it’s better at all – in 2014 as compared to last season. And with the offense not scoring enough points, the pressure will be immense.
Arkansas has one marquee defensive player, end Trey Flowers. Flowers could be a high draft pick next April, but he’ll need help from his mates in order not to be an automatic double-team this fall. Flowers is equally good at run defense and pressuring the passer, so he’ll draw a lot of attention. Next to him will be Darius Philon, who came on strong late in 2013 and showed some promise himself in getting up the field. The strong side of the line, however, could be an issue. Deatrich Wise and DeMarcus Hodge held the starting end and tackle spots, respectively, at the end of spring, but they weren’t being pushed and won’t be pushed this fall, either. Taiwan Johnson offers depth inside while Brandon Lewis and JaMichael Winston will help out at defensive end. Without some contributions from signees, though, particularly inside, Arkansas won’t have the depth to stay on the field against high-powered offenses.
There’s plenty of experience here, but this is a weak unit. Braylon Mitchell is the lone returning starter, and he needs to improve a ton himself. He’ll start at strongside linebacker, with Brooks Ellis, the lone underclassman, in the middle and Martrell Spaight at the weakside. Tiquention Coleman will back up the outside along with senior Daunte Carr, while the Razorbacks are still searching for depth in the middle. Only Ellis tops the 230-pound mark, which will be a problem unless Arkansas shifts its strategy to focus more on speed. If the Razorbacks were hoping for a big impact from a freshman, it won’t happen unless someone plays well above his recruiting resume.
Two starters and four key reserves return from the 2013 team, but Arkansas was burned frequently in the back end and not much is expected to change. Cornerback Tevin Mitchel has the potential to rise above, but he can’t do it alone. Alan Turner returns at strong safety, while Rohan Gaines might as well be considered a third returning starter at free safety. Gaines might be the best player back here. Carroll Washington will start opposite Mitchell, while Jared Collins and Will Hines offer experienced depth at corner. But experience doesn’t equal competency. Davyon McKinney will back up safety along with redshirt freshman De’Andre Coley, who has a lot of fans and will be closely watched.
Punter Sam Irwin-Hill returns, and he gives Arkansas a true weapon. The problems come everywhere else. True freshman Cole Hedlund will be expected to win the kicking job, while the return game is essentially Jonathan Williams and a cast of thousands. Williams was the only threat Arkansas had in 2013, and the Razorbacks must get better all around in both returns and coverage.
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