The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 63 Arkansas.
Previewing Arkansas' Offense:
Brandon Allen’s lackluster passing numbers in his first year as the starter shouldn’t have come as a surprise. His ascension to the No. 1 spot on the depth chart coincided with the loss of high-end talent at the receiver position and the introduction of a run-first philosophy by new coach Bret Bielema. Allen completed 49.6 percent of his passes, and his accuracy fell to 47.7 percent in SEC games, worst among conference starters. Allen, who played with an ailing throwing shoulder most of the season, should produce better results this fall. Both his backups are untested — redshirt freshman Austin Allen (his brother) and true freshman Rafe Peavey.
Alex Collins led the nation’s freshmen with 1,026 rushing yards, joining Darren McFadden as the only Arkansas freshmen to hit the 1,000-yard mark. Collins did it while sharing time with Jonathan Williams, who compiled 900 rushing yards and averaged 6.0 yards per carry. Both return, with help from speedster Korliss Marshall and big fullback Kody Walker. A better passing attack should help the run game.
Tight end Hunter Henry leads a pass-catching crew that includes senior Demetrius Wilson — who is back from a knee injury — Keon Hatcher, D’Arthur Cowan and tight end Jeremy Sprinkle.
The Hogs are trying to stockpile talent on the offensive line, which will feature senior right tackle Brey Cook and standout sophomores in left tackle Dan Skipper and right guard Denver Kirkland.
Previewing Arkansas' Defense:
Robb Smith, previously with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Rutgers, will be Arkansas’ fourth defensive coordinator in the past four seasons. Smith inherited a unit that brings back four starters after ranking 76th nationally in total defense. The lone holdover assistant is linebackers coach Randy Shannon. Smith seems more willing to attack with blitzes than the previous defensive staff, which might help the Hogs improve on their paltry takeaway count of 14.
The pass rush should be solid with veteran end Trey Flowers taking on a leading role. Sophomore ends Deatrich Wise, Brandon Lewis and JaMichael Winston played well in the spring, and tackle Darius Philon could be ready for a breakout year alongside 343-pound run-stuffer DeMarcus Hodge.
The Hogs have struggled at the linebacker position in recent years. The expectation by the staff is that seniors Braylon Mitchell and Martrell Spaight and sophomore Brooks Ellis will play faster, be better run-stoppers and more authoritative tacklers.
Arkansas has a bounty of options at cornerback, where Tevin Mitchel is trying to rebound from a rough season, with help from Carroll Washington, Will Hines and others. The numbers at safety are still thin, but veterans Alan Turner and Rohan Gaines should pick it up a notch, and redshirt freshman De’Andre Coley could be the kind of hard-hitting ball-hawk the Razorbacks have lacked.
Previewing Arkansas' Specialists:
Australian Sam Irwin-Hill’s introduction to major-college football was action-packed. The ambidextrous punter ranked 13th in the nation with a 44.3-yard average, and he triggered several fourth-down gambles, running and throwing, with mixed results. The Razorbacks gave a scholarship to Texas legend Cole Hedlund, hoping he can follow Zach Hocker as the next four-year kicker in the program.
Arkansas should be improved on both sides of the ball, but that doesn’t mean another winless SEC season is out of the question for the Razorbacks, who are still trying to stabilize and upgrade their roster after the disruption of the Bobby Petrino affair. Qualifying for a bowl berth would be a significant step in Year 2 under Bielema, as Arkansas chugs forward with a difficult rebuild.