Previews 2015: Arkansas Razorbacks
Returning Offensive Starters: 9 (SE, FL, TE, RT, C, LG, LT, QB, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 5 (RDE, LDT, WLB, RCB, LCB)
Returning Specialists: 1 (PK)
Projected SEC Record: 4-4 (UT, UA, OM, LSU)
Projected SEC West Record: 3-3 (UA, OM, LSU)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Vg Defensive Line: Fr
Running Backs: Ex Linebackers: Fr
Wide Receivers: Vg Defensive Backs: Av
Offensive Line: Ex Special Teams: Av
Bret Bielema’s second-year success was as important for his future as it was Arkansas’. Bielema led Arkansas to a 6-6 record and then a dominating bowl win over old Southwest Conference rival Texas, giving some credence to the idea that old-school football might still have a place in the SEC. Arkansas will be boring, but probably effective. The offense is one of the most experienced in the SEC, but the defense, which overachieved in 2014, was gutted by the graduation cycle.
Arkansas will run a traditional I-formation, ground-pounding offense, and will do it well. Nine starters return from a unit that ranked 24th in passing and 42nd in scoring offense in 2014, while also ranking 27th in turnover margin. The Razorbacks also boast an efficient, if not dynamic passing game. What the Razorbacks don’t have is big-play comeback ability, limited as they are by an average-at-best receiver corps.
Brandon Allen emerged last year as a capable signal-caller in this offense after looking overwhelmed by SEC competition previously. Allen is undoubtedly helped by having two NFL-caliber running backs behind him and an offensive line that is nearly impenetrable, but he showed enough flashes of his own ability that he showed up on a bunch of preseason all-SEC ballots. What Arkansas doesn’t have is a lot of depth. Allen’s brother Austin Allen figures to be the backup, but he doesn’t seem to have his older brother’s talent. Behind them is true freshman Ty Storey, who should be good in time, but isn’t ready yet, and Rafe Peavey, a redshirt freshman. Walk-on Troy Allison fills out the depth chart. But if Arkansas gets down to the third team or beyond – perhaps even to the backup, Austin Allen – the season is in trouble.
There is no shortage of quality here. Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins each has the talent to carry this unit on his own; together, they’re as good as anything Georgia, LSU or Alabama can muster. Both players have the strength to take the fight to interior defensive linemen, although Collins is probably more of a pure banger than the more balanced Williams. The two players combined for almost 2,300 yards rushing in 2014. If you’re looking for a weak point here, ball security might be the only one, particularly in regards to Collins. Arkansas also could stand to use its backs better as receivers out of the backfield. But this is nitpicking of the first order. Depth may be a concern. Denzell Evans is the only other player on the roster with experience, and his experience was limited to 7 carries in 2014. He’s a big body, though (5’11”, 225), so he has the potential to make it work. True freshman Rawleigh Williams III will likely round out the depth chart. Arkansas is also one of the few teams left that uses a traditional fullback, and the Hogs have a good one in Kody Walker. Walker is a 260-pound load who was the team’s third-leading rusher in 2014. He’ll be backed up by a freshman, Tyler Colquitt.
Arkansas needs someone to step up across from Keon Hatcher who doesn’t have the words “tight end” preceding his name. Hatcher developed into a nice weapon for Allen and Bielema in 2014, but he can’t do it all. Arkansas spent the entire year trying to get Jared Cornelius or Cody Hollister to take the solidify the other receiver slot, to no avail. They’ll be joined in 2015 by Drew Morgan and JUCO transfer Dominique Reed. Damon Mitchell and walk-on Anthony Antwine, who also plays tight end, will provide depth. The tight end position is now solely the property of Hunter Henry, who caught 513 yards in passes in 2014 and also established himself as a deft blocker. Jeremy Sprinkle and Will Gragg will battle for the backup job.
Four starters return from a unit that went from average at best in 2013 to one of the conference’s most physical, toughest units in 2014. The only new starter or 2015, right guard Frank Ragnow, was a member of the SEC’s all-freshman team last year. Tackles Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper could be the best combination in the league this year if their pass-blocking improves. They’re already two of the best road graders in the league, but Skipper in particular needs to cut down on his penalties and play more under control. Left guard Sebastian Tretola and center Mitch Smothers could each end up at the top of the all-SEC pile if they play in 2015 the way they did a year ago. The only negative here for Arkansas won’t actually show up until after the season is over; Tretola and Smothers are seniors and both Kirkland and Skipper could opt to enter the NFL Draft a year early. But that’s an issue for 2016, not 2015. Depth could be a concern this year behind the starters. Outside of reserve guard Marcus Danenhauer, the rest of the second unit figures to be all freshmen. Jalen Merrick and Brian Wallace held the tackle spots post-spring, while Zach Rogers looks to be the reserve center and Josh Allen the other backup guard across from Danenhauer.
Arkansas overachieved fantastically on defense in 2014, thanks mostly to a veteran defensive line that finally put it all together. But the defensive line, while not terrible, figures to take a significant step backward in 2015. On top of that, Arkansas simply needs more athletes at the second level. The Razorbacks will utilize a fairly standard 4-3 alignment and focus on execution rather than fancy looks, but a Razorback offense that can control the clock might be the best friend this defense has.
It all starts up front, and this unit will have to be tested by fire before anyone really knows what Arkansas has. With Trey Flowers and Darius Philon gone, it doesn’t seem Arkansas has comparable players ready to step into those holes. JaMichael Winston becomes the go-to guy at defensive end, with Deatrich Wise set to start in Flowers’ old spot. Experience on the outside isn’t bad; Jeremiah Ledbetter and Tevin Beanum have each seen plenty of game action. Perhaps the best attribute this group brings to the table is size; despite Arkansas running a four-man front, all four of the defensive ends can slide inside if needed. The real questions come at tackle, where Taiwan Johnson and Bijhon Jackson will start and DeMarcus Hodge will back them up. Johnson was a started in 2014 and Jackson a key reserve, but neither is as good as Philon was. Redshirt freshman Armon Watts leads a group of younger players, including Ke’Tyrus Marks and Hjalte Froholdt, in the battle to join the top rotation.
They were well-coached in 2014, but athleticism has been a question for years and will be again in 2015. Arkansas plans to build around Brooks Ellis, the lone returning starter, who will move from middle linebacker to the weakside. Ellis, though, isn’t the athlete that Martrell Spaight was, and moving outside creates a hole in the middle that Khalia Hackett might not be ready to fill. Josh Williams finished up spring as the other outside starter. Depth is a major concern. Josh Harris and Dwayne Eugene appear to be the top backups now that Randy Ramsey is no longer with the team. A signee, likely either Derrick Graham or Kendrick Jackson, will have to be ready to play early. Both Graham and Jackson are physically imposing, but neither was considered a top-level recruit. An injury here could really hurt Arkansas.
Pass defense was where Arkansas was weakest in 2014, but the Razorbacks were still respectable. Arkansas has one true star in cornerback Jared Collins, and D.J. Dean also returns to his starting post. Henre’ Toliver will be the nickel corner, but Dean and Toliver both need to get more consistent. The safety position has good experience in the form of Rohan Gaines, De’Andre Coley and Josh Liddell, but Gaines is coming off a suspension and Arkansas’ safeties are long on hitting power and short on coverage ability. Santos Ramirez is a possibility to grab a starting spot, but is just a freshman. Arkansas has put a premium on physical play with this unit, but fluid receivers gave Arkansas trouble last year and likely will again in 2015.
Walk-on Adam McFain had a solid year as a placekicker, hitting 7 of 10 field goal attempts and all of his PATs. He’ll get pushed by signee Cole Hedlund but McFain would have to do something to lose the job, probably. The punting situation is less clear. Toby Baker had the job coming out of spring, but signee Blake Johnson is an even-money shot to take the job now. The return jobs were in flux coming out of spring, with Keon Hatcher and Jared Cornelius leading at the time.
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