Arkansas must replace a couple of key players from last year's team, but there's stability in Fayetteville with Bret Bielema at the helm. On offense, the Razorbacks must replace quarterback Brandon Allen, running back Alex Collins, tight end Hunter Henry and offensive linemen Denver Kirkland and Sebastian Tretola. There is a lot of change in Fayetteville but Arkansas coach Bret Bielema might have a thing or two up his sleeve. The Razorbacks have made steady progress in Bielema’s first three seasons, but will there be a step back or step forward this year?
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Previewing Arkansas’ Offense
Junior Austin Allen, clearly the top performer at the position halfway through spring, was officially named the starting quarterback in mid-April after 10 practices. The brother of three-year starter Brandon Allen, the younger Allen has tended to be more of a risk-taker, which could lead to big plays as well as head-scratching mistakes.
With a new starting quarterback, the Hogs will look to focus more on the running game in Dan Enos’ second season as offensive coordinator. The carries will likely be split among Kody Walker, who suffered a broken foot midway through spring drills, Rawleigh Williams, who is coming off neck surgery, Damon Mitchell, and possibly blue-chip signee Devwah Whaley, as well as others.
The receiving corps showed surprising depth after a foot injury knocked Keon Hatcher out after two games. Hatcher is back, along with fellow seniors Drew Morgan, Dominique Reed and Cody Hollister. Morgan, who blossomed with 10 TD catches, is coming off shoulder surgery. Dominique Reed’s speed and agility add an extra dimension. Jared Cornelius is a quality slot receiver. Jeremy Sprinkle takes over at tight end, with rookies Will Gragg, Austin Cantrell and C.J. O’Grady jostling for time.
Arkansas might cede its spot as the nation’s heaviest offensive line. Dan Skipper and Frank Ragnow, who has moved to center, are back. Converted defensive tackle Hjalte Froholdt is targeted to play left guard, while Brian Wallace and Colton Jackson could be the other two starters.
Previewing Arkansas’ Defense
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With nine starters returning, the Hogs expect to improve their pass rush and coverage and ultimately be closer to the No. 10-ranked defense from 2014 rather than last year’s No. 58-ranked unit. In 2015, Arkansas struggled to slow spread offenses and gave up a bevy of big pass plays.
Deatrich Wise Jr. erupted in the second half of 2015. He and JaMichael Winston are solid at one end, while Tevin Beanum and blue-chip newcomer McTelvin Agim work the rush end spot. Jeremiah Ledbetter moved from end to tackle to provide an agile, explosive interior presence, and Taiwan Johnson is back at nose.
Arkansas is desperate to provide relief at linebacker to Brooks Ellis and Dre Greenlaw, who played virtually all the key snaps last year. Help could be on the way in the form of Randy Ramsey, Khalia Hackett, Dwayne Eugene, Kendrick Jackson and four talented signees.
Several veterans return for DBs coach Paul Rhoads, including cornerbacks Jared Collins, D.J. Dean and Henre’ Toliver, safety Josh Liddell and versatile Kevin Richardson. Santos Ramirez and De’Andre Coley are big hitters at strong safety.
Previewing Arkansas’ Specialists
After having five field goals blocked last season, including a potential game-winner in the final minute against Mississippi State, the Razorbacks revamped their blocking and execution under new line coach Kurt Anderson. Cole Hedlund is getting quicker lift on his kicks after going 9-of-15 on field goals. Toby Baker is primed for a big season after averaging 41.2 yards per punt in his first year as a starter.
After struggling to win tight games in Bret Bielema’s first two seasons, the Razorbacks pulled out nail-biters vs. Tennessee, Auburn and Ole Miss but lost three close ones, including a 51–50 decision against Mississippi State. More of those high-drama SEC games could be on tap this fall, but Arkansas might not be as well equipped to handle them with a new starter at quarterback. How the revamped offensive line and run game can establish themselves and dictate tempo will go a long way toward determining the Razorbacks’ fate. Arkansas should be bowl bound for a third year in a row, but contending in the rigorous SEC West seems like a stretch.