Overview: Arkansas has become a more dangerous team under Bret Bielema’s watch, but a lack of top-level recruiting has kept the Razorbacks from taking the next step. This trend doesn’t seem to change, so expect a Bielema-led Arkansas program to continue to play hard and occupy the spoiler role (we’re looking at you, Ole Miss) but not necessarily compete for division titles. The Arkansas fans will ultimately decide whether that’s enough to keep them engaged with Bielema.
Projected record: 7-5 (UA, TCU, OM, AU, LSU); 4-4 and 5th SEC West
Returning offensive starters: 4 (SE, FL, C, RT)
Returning defensive starters: 8 (DT, NT, LDE, RLB, LLB, RCB, LCB, FS)
Returning specialists: 2 (PK, P)
QB: Fr DL: Vg
RB: Vg LB: Av
WR: Vg DB: Vg
OL: Av ST: Vg
Offensive breakdown: The key for Arkansas will be managing the expectations of the quarterback position. Brandon Allen probably exceeded expectations over the course of his career, but he’s gone now, and will be replaced by his younger brother, Austin, who at no time has ever been thought of as a superior quarterback prospect.
Arkansas will have enough skill talent to keep the pressure completely off him, however; running backs Rawleigh Williams III, Kody Walker and Duwop Mitchell form up a solid trio, all with different skill sets. The wide receiver corps is one of the deepest in the division, with a half-dozen players having past starting experience. Drew Morgan, Keon Hatcher, Dominique Reed and Jared Cornelius will battle for the starting spots, but all will play substantial minutes. Tight end Jeremy Sprinkle may be the key to it all, as he caught 27 balls for 389 yards last year and is a devastating blocker.
The offensive line should be vintage Arkansas, big and strong but without a lot of finesse around the edges. Tackle Dan Skipper is probably a first-rounder next April, but he might not be on Allen’s backside. That duty could go to a freshman, Colton Jackson, which would allow Skipper to play the spot he’ll most likely play at the next level. If Skipper does have to go to the left side, look for Brian Wallace to move in at right tackle. Frank Ragnow will be the center, while Hjalte Froholdt will get the call at left guard. If Wallace moves to right tackle, Zach Rogers will likely come off the bench to fill in at right guard. Were that to happen, depth inside gets a little thin, as Rogers was probably going to serve in a sixth-man role.
It’s interesting to note that if Allen can’t handle the QB job, or if he gets hurt, one of the backups competing for playing time is former UA target Ricky Town. Look for Arkansas to use less fullback this year and leverage its assets at the wide receiver slots.
Defensive/ST breakdown: A veteran front seven (or front six, given how often the Hogs will play a nickel base) ought to give Arkansas a chance in most any matchup. The defensive line, in particular, could be much better at speed than it looks on paper. Arkansas gets a little smaller in the middle now that Jeremiah Ledbetter is expected to play inside, while Taiwan Johnson and Bijhon Jackson will hold the point at noseguard. Defensive end Tevin Beanum is trying to rebound from injury; he, Deatrich Wise Jr. and JaMichael Winston are experienced, technically sound and often better than advertised as pass rushers. Everyone named so far is either a senior or a threat to leave for next year’s draft early, though, so look for Arkansas to try to prepare a bit for coming seasons by working freshmen into the mix.
The linebacker corps, primarily Brooks Ellis and Dre Greenlaw, are rock-solid against the run but need work in pass coverage. One of the reasons for Arkansas playing more nickel than base this year is an attempt to help mitigate the problem of linebackers struggling in coverage. Kendrick Jackson will probably back up both linebacker positions, although Dwayne Eugene and Khalia Hackett will also get work on the weakside. Josh Williams, attempting to make a comeback from a devastating leg injury, and freshman De’Jon Harris are also in the mix.
As for the secondary, Arkansas is hoping that this group makes a return to form in 2016 and actually plays to its potential. Getting the cornerback mix right is the big challenge, and the coaches seem to have settled on Henre’ Toliver and Jared Collins as the starters. Josh Liddell and Santos Ramirez will be the safeties, but both need to get more consistent. D.J. Dean and Kevin Richardson are in a fight for the nickel position along with Reid Miller.
The special teams positions should be in good shape. Punter Toby Baker had a solid 2015 season and improved further in the spring. Placekicker Cole Hedlund, however, will lose his job if he repeats his 2015 performance. He missed two attempts under 30 yards and was just 1-of-5 from beyond 30 out. He was better in spring camp, though, but if he can’t keep up the momentum, someone else will take over.
Overall Trend: Sideways. Arkansas ought to be better on defense in 2016, but offensively, the change at quarterback and the questions surrounding the rebuilding of the offensive line will be too much to overcome. The ceiling looks like nine wins, and that’s if everything goes perfectly.
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