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5. Arkansas Razorbacks (6-6, 3-5)
Rankings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Running Backs: Av
Wide Receivers: Vg
Offensive Line: Vg
Defensive Line: Av
Defensive Backs: Fr
Special Teams: Pr
It sounds somewhat strange to say a team coming off a 3-7 effort was one of the surprise teams in the SEC last year, but Arkansas was expected by many to go winless; instead, the Hogs won three games and gave Auburn, LSU, Missouri and Texas A&M big scares as well. Sam Pittman changed Arkansas’ mindset from finesse to power in an incredibly short period, and hopes to take the next step back to respectability in 2021.
Offense: What could go right
Everything starts up front with an offensive line that returns intact from 2020. Even so, Pittman’s staff isn’t letting established starters simply cruise into the new season; 2020 LG Brady Latham lost his starting job in spring camp to Luke Jones. Arkansas also has a solid second unit, giving the Razorbacks uncommon depth here given their current status as a second- or third-tier SEC team. The receiver group could be special if De’Vion Warren is fully recovered from an ACL injury. Treylon Burks is a receiver no defense really likes to face, but Arkansas could have been truly special had it held onto Mike Woods; Woods transferred to Oklahoma.
Offense: What could go wrong
Arkansas is saying all the right things about QB K.J. Jefferson, but Jefferson has been injury-prone in the past and has struggled with accuracy ever since stepping onto campus. The backup situation isn’t much better, as Malik Hornsby is an untested freshman, and he’ll likely have to play a lot to keep Jefferson available. The running back group is just OK, and those two factors together hamper Arkansas’ explosiveness – and explain what probably went into Woods’ decision to leave for Norman.
Defense: What could go right
Arkansas hit the transfer jackpot on the defensive line, getting three potential starters – Markell Utsey and Tre Williams from Missouri and John Ridgeway from Illinois State. Ridgeway, like 2020 LSU (and former North Dakota State) linebacker Jabril Cox, is an NFL prospect who just happened to begin his career at a lower division. Williams doesn’t really fit the Razorbacks’ 3-man front given his smaller size, but two starters were already returning from the 2020 Arkansas team (Isaiah Nichols, Eric Gregory), so Arkansas will have the flexibility to figure the alignments out. The linebackers are solid but strictly a lunchpail group – but they don’t make many mistakes.
Defense: What could go wrong
Williams is expected to start ahead of Jashaud Stewart, who won the job originally in spring practice. Neither player is over 250 pounds; most 3-4 inside player are 40-50 pounds heavier. The secondary is the much bigger question mark, though. Arkansas was dreadful in pass coverage last year and eventually just went to a strategy of playing a pseudo-prevent defense for long stretches in games, due to the inability of the corners to win one-on-one battles or make athletic plays. Nothing much changed in spring camp. Safety Jalen Catalon has some real ability but he can’t do it all by himself. Special teams are among the worst in the conference, if not the worst, owing to the lack of general depth on the roster.
One-sentence summary: A throwback-type team that needs more star power.
Arkansas will be tough for most any opponent to beat, but the Razorbacks have a challenging schedule and can’t win games on guile alone. They need upgrades in the offensive backfield, secondary and in the kicking game, but shouldn’t be underestimated on the two lines of scrimmage – and if you’re going to be solid somewhere, that’s the right somewhere to pick.
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