Previews 2019: Arkansas, Auburn and LSU

Arkansas Razorbacks

Projected record: 5-7 (UA, TAM, UK, AU, MSU, LSU, UM); 1-7 and 6th SEC West
Returning offensive starters: 5 (SE, LT, C, TE, RB)
Returning defensive starters: 5 (RDT, LDT, MLB, RCB, SS)
Returning specialists: 2 (PK, P)

Unit ratings
QB: Av DL: Vg
RB: Av LB: Av
WR: Fr DB: Pr
OL: Fr ST: Fr

Offense – what’s to like: This really comes down to how much weight you put on QB Ben Hicks’ career at SMU. Hicks, who was recruited there by current Arkansas head coach Chad Morris, threw for 9,081 yards at SMU, but there is precious little about SMU that would translate to the SEC. Still, given the train wreck that was the Ty Storey-Cole Kelley combo at this position last year, anything is better. The problems start if Hicks gets knocked around, as that would either force a freshman into the mix (John Stephen Jones, who played briefly in 2018 but who rings in at just 5-11, 190), or Texas A&M graduate transfer Nick Starkel, who is competent but not dynamic. Connor Noland, the top backup coming out of spring camp, quit to focus on baseball.

Whoever is at quarterback will be able to rely on a running back group that is, at the very least, competent, and could be much more. Rakeem Boyd and Devwah Whaley have proven themselves at the SEC level in the past, and Boyd was beginning to take the next step at the end of 2018. Chase Hayden rounds out the group. The problem here was lack of scoring, as those three players combined for just 5 touchdowns in 2018 and the team as a whole was ranked 99th nationally. Still, the pieces are here.

Offense – potential pitfalls: The thing to get most optimistic about is actually Morris’ ability to get the most out of subpar talent and squeeze production out of mismatches. He’ll need it, because there is a lack of talent all over the place. The top returning wide receiver on the team last year was Deon Stewart – who was fourth overall on the team behind a tight end and a running back in addition to departed senior La’Michael Pettway. Stewart caught 22 passes for a pedestrian 178 yards (8.1 avg.) and no scores. The rest of the receiver corps will likely lean on young, unproven players simply because the older ones haven’t shown much. The best weapon is tight end C.J. O’Grady, who lit Alabama up for two touchdowns, but there isn’t much depth behind him.

The offensive line is by far the bigger concern. Freshman tackle Noah Gatlin was expected to do big things in 2019, but tore his ACL at the opening of fall camp. That’s going to pull either Myron Cunningham or Dalton Wagner, into the starting lineup, and neither are viewed as ready yet. There will be a new starter at right guard as well, likely Shane Clenin. The good news is that center and left tackle are nailed down (Ty Clary, Colton Jackson). As for the mess at wide receiver, only time will tell.

Defense/special teams – what’s to like: A defensive line that could compete with just about anyone is the unquestioned highlight of this Razorback team. McTelvin Agim could have jumped to the NFL if he’d wanted to, but returned as a force in the middle. Fellow tackle T.J. Smith also returns. Both are seniors. Depth behind them is good.

The linebacker group has the potential to be good, but it’s not guaranteed. De’Jon Harris looks the part at middle linebacker, and he recorded 118 tackles last year. Weakside backer Bumper Pool will be a new starter, but he got plenty of action last year to the point that he might as well be a returning starter himself. On special teams, placekicker Connor Limpert is one of the best in the SEC.

Defense/special teams – potential pitfalls: Depth at linebacker was already going to be a challenge, and Giovanni LaFrance apparently left the team early in camp, putting his name in the transfer portal. The big issue is the dropoff in athletic ability from the starters to the reserves. It’s not insignificant. In special teams, there’s depth at punter, but insignificant quality. Reid Bauer grabbed the job in the spring and needs to improve greatly over his 2018 numbers. Sam Loy, who started out at Vanderbilt and then transferred to Colorado, is now at Arkansas. He hasn’t kicked in a game in two years.

The secondary, though, is the real source of concern. The Hogs lost their two best players, Santos Ramirez and Ryan Pulley, and aside from SS Kamren Curl, no one of significance is coming back. Jarques McClellion had an uneven first year at cornerback. Walk-ons and freshmen are part of the competition here.

Final analysis: It didn’t take a football genius to realize that Morris made the Razorbacks better and more competitive than they were at the end of Bret Bielema’s tenure. Now the question is the same for Morris as it was for Bielema, Houston Nutt and countless others at Arkansas: Can he recruit well enough to be competitive in the cutthroat SEC West? Aside from the defensive line, this team has the lowest overall talent of probably any team in the SEC save for maybe probation-depleted Ole Miss. Arkansas was a try-hard, never-quit outfit in 2018 but the 2-10 record, with four of those 10 losses coming by a touchdown or less, signaled the talent deficiencies. And Morris certainly didn’t fix those in a single recruiting cycle.

READ MORE:  Auburn


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