August 14, 2017
by Jess Nicholas, TideFans Editor-in-Chief
Overview: No team in the SEC West, not even probation-bound Ole Miss, loses as much heading into 2017 as Arkansas does. This was already going to be a rough year for the Razorbacks, given how graduation wiped out the defense and depth at wide receiver, but a career-ending neck injury to running back Rawleigh Williams III was not what Bret Bielema needed. Bielema’s job is in some degree of peril at the moment, and this is not the time to be undergoing another rebuilding effort. Yet here Arkansas is.
Projected record: 4-8 (UA, USC, TAM, AU, OM, LSU, TCU, MSU); 1-7 and 7th SEC West
Returning offensive starters: 6 (SE, LG, C, RG, RT, QB)
Returning defensive starters: 5 (WLB, RCB, LCB, FS, SS)
Returning specialists: 1 (PK)
QB: Av DL: Pr
RB: Av LB: Fr
WR: Fr DB: Av
OL: Vg ST: Fr
Offensive breakdown: Even Arkansas has now moved on from the traditional I-formation offensive set, as Bielema has adapted a hybrid form of the Ace look as Arkansas’ new base. He’s going to need all the help he can get from this unit to carry a young defense. Calling the shots again is senior Austin Allen, who probably exceeded expectations more than any other SEC quarterback last year with the possible exception of Alabama’s Jalen Hurts, and Hurts was a true freshman. Allen threw for 3,430 yards and 25 touchdowns, although his 15 interceptions were a sore spot. Allen doesn’t have much pure athleticism or the greatest arm strength, but he’s a grinder. He’ll need to be on point for Arkansas in 2017, especially with Williams’ departure. Arkansas would love to get a Jay-Barker-under-Homer-Smith performance from him this year.
With Williams no longer at running back, the whole thing falls to Devwah Whaley, who looked sharp as Williams’ backup last year, both players averaging around 5.5 yards per carry. The issue now is finding a backup for Whaley, and there aren’t many choices. Arkansas is carrying only six running backs on the roster, inclusive of walk-ons. David Williams would seem to have the inside track, with one of two true freshmen, Chase Hayden or Maleek Williams, the next choice. As much as Arkansas calls on its running backs, stamina could become an issue. Fullbacks Kendrick Jackson and Hayden Johnson will now compete at the modified H-back position, technically part of the receiver group. Aside from veteran split end Jared Cornelius, who averaged 16.1 yards per catch last year, there are a lot of names here but not a lot of proven production. Arkansas brought 17 receivers into fall camp, trying to find someone ready to step up. Deon Stewart looks like the most likely second option, but he is rail-thin and caught only 2 passes last year. JUCO transfers Jonathan Nance and Brandon Martin and sophomore La’Michael Pettway will challenge. Austin Cantrell takes over at tight end after being a part-time starter in 2016; he got better as the season went along.
One area the Hogs won’t have issues – or shouldn’t, anyway – is at offensive line, where all four starters return and there is good competition. Arkansas arguably has the best line in the SEC, but will need to display better consistency than it did a year ago. Center Frank Ragnow is probably head of the SEC class at that position, and Hjalte Froholdt is a stalwart left guard. The right guard position could be an issue if Jake Raulerson can’t take his game to the next level. Brian Wallace is a solid right tackle. The wild card spot is left tackle, where Colton Jackson has plenty of talent but is raw. Shane Clenin, a freshman, might not stay off the field long.
Defensive/ST breakdown: Arkansas did nothing truly well on this side of the ball last year. There were concerns about the passing game heading into the season, but Arkansas surprisingly struggled more against the run (94th, versus 58th against the pass). And now, six of the front seven will be new starters. On top of that, the Razorbacks are moving out of their comfort zone and switching to a three-man front, which typically in the SEC means at least one additional loss on the schedule. Arkansas has no real answer at noseguard, with Bijhon Jackson leading Austin Capps there for now. Neither player has lived up to expectations. McTelvin Agim and Armon Watts led the competition at end coming out of spring, but T.J. Smith or freshman Briston Guidry could push Watts out. At linebacker, Dre Greenlaw represents the lone returning starter in the defensive front. He’ll need to be more of a playmaker in the new defense. Arkansas is excited to watch De’Jon Harris’ development at middle linebacker. The biggest issue will be the two outside linebacker spots, where Randy Ramsey and Karl Roesler seem a bit overmatched. Dwayne Eugene is pushing Ramsey, but both players are badly undersized for the role. Michael Taylor II could be another player to watch there, but he lacks coverage ability. Depth inside almost doesn’t exist.
The defensive backfield has plenty of experience, but is in bad need of improvement. The safety group of Josh Liddell, Santos Ramirez, De’Andre Coley and Reid Miller must take their game to the next level. At corner, Ryan Pulley was the biggest bright spot last year, and the pressure is definitely on to repeat. Henre’ Toliver needs another gear, while Kevin Richardson is probably going to be the swing corner. Simply put, there are just not enough recruiting-service stars next to the players’ names back here.
Adam McFain has graduated, so the placekicker job goes back to Cole Hedlund, who has had it and lost it a couple of times. This year he may be the only option. Kickoff specialist Connor Limpert is around in the event Hedlund gets the shakes again. Blake Johnson has a strong leg but is untested at punter, and struggled in the spring. There are no other punters on the fall roster. Punt and kickoff returns should be OK, but Arkansas’ lack of depth came through a couple of times on special teams. More consistency is needed.
Overall Trend: Down. Arkansas simply hasn’t recruited well enough to keep pace with its SEC West rivals and the difference in results is starting to show up. Defensively, this could wind up being the worst SEC West team in several years, and the best-case scenario for this defense is only midpack. Whether Bielema can continue to survive depends on whether he can upset a couple of much better teams on the schedule. Missing a bowl, which TideFans.com predicts Arkansas will, might be enough to end Bielema’s tenure outright.
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