Arkansas showed significant improvement in Bret Bielema’s second year and finished the 2014 season by winning four out of its last six games. The Razorbacks should be even better in 2015 with the return of quarterback Brandon Allen, one of the nation’s top backfields and offensive lines. The front seven on defense must be retooled, but there’s enough talent to keep this unit near the top of the SEC.
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Previewing Arkansas’ Offense for 2015
Brandon Allen is in line to become Arkansas’ first three-year starting quarterback since Matt Jones (2002-04), but he’s working on his fourth offensive coordinator in five years with the arrival of Dan Enos. If Allen marginally improves on his 2014 passing numbers — 2,285 yards, 20 touchdowns, five interceptions — the Razorbacks could make a huge leap.
Arkansas sports the FBS’ only tandem 1,000-yard rushers from last season in Jonathan Williams (1,190 yards) and Alex Collins (1,100), who each rushed for 12 touchdowns. The duo should be just as dynamic this fall running behind a line that returns four starters. The front wall has undergone a shake-up, with former guard Denver Kirkland now at left tackle and Dan Skipper swapping sides to right tackle. Left guard Sebastian Tretola, who gained national publicity for his touchdown pass on a fake field goal last year, returns in better physical condition next to center Mitch Smothers. Frank Ragnow is the top candidate to take over at right guard, and the Razorbacks should have quality depth.
Keon Hatcher returned to lead the receiving corps, which is in need of game-breaking talent. Signee Dominique Reed and redshirt freshman Jojo Robinson should provide a spark to a unit that also brings back Jared Cornelius, Cody Hollister, Drew Morgan and converted quarterback Damon Mitchell.
Hunter Henry again leads the tight end corps, which also features Jeremy Sprinkle and signee Will Gragg, the brother of ex-Hog Chris Gragg of the Buffalo Bills.
Previewing Arkansas’ Defense for 2015
Arkansas shook off about a decade of sluggish play from its defense to rank 10th nationally in yards allowed per game, an improvement of 66 spots. Second-year coordinator Robb Smith re-upped with a handsome raise and is confident the Razorbacks can plug rising stars into the system and remain productive despite the loss of key players such as Trey Flowers, Darius Philon, Martrell Spaight and Alan Turner.
Up front, breakout star Taiwan Johnson has moved from nose guard to defensive tackle to create room for Bijhon Jackson and DeMarcus Hodge. Ends Deatrich Wise Jr. and JaMichael Winston are prepared for larger roles and the leadership mantle. Junior college transfer Jeremiah Ledbetter should have an impact.
Brooks Ellis slides from middle linebacker to the weak-side spot from which Spaight racked up an SEC-best 128 tackles. Junior Josh Williams and sophomores Khalia Hackett and Randy Ramsey (if he returns from suspension) should have increased playing time at linebacker.
Corners Jared Collins, D.J. Dean and Henre’ Toliver have proven to be solid SEC cover men. Rohan Gaines brings veteran experience at strong safety, and sophomore Josh Liddell could be the kind of heavy-hitting free safety the Razorbacks have lacked for years.
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Previewing Arkansas’ Specialists for 2015
Toby Baker and signee Blake Johnson are vying to replace punter Sam Irwin-Hill. Adam McFain has the experience edge over Lane Saling and Cole Hedlund for placekicking duties. Cornelius is the punt returner after showing promise as a freshman, and Hatcher has experience on kickoff returns.
Arkansas should be more dynamic and more efficient with Allen back for his third season as the starter operating in front of a top-flight offensive line. The defense, despite some key losses in the front seven, should once again be strong. To emerge as a legitimate contender in the rough-and-tumble SEC West, the Hogs must find a way to win on the road in league play (something they haven’t done since October 2012) and learn how to win close games (they haven’t won an SEC game decided by a touchdown or less since October 2011).