Hogs fans are hoping to have more to cheer about in 2014.
Arkansas had the worst football season in its existence in 2013.
And that was after firing an extremely popular and successful coach for getting caught illegally hiring his young mistress into the athletic department and finishing 4-8 under John L. Smith.
Needless to say, it’s been a rough few years for Razorbacks fans. In the toughest division in football, the uphill climb back to SEC respectability - much less the Sugar Bowl - appears to be extremely treacherous.
Arkansas was outgained by its opponents last season by an average of 138.3 yards per game — trailing only Kentucky in the SEC. It means Bret Bielema has his work cut out for him on both sides of the ball. The entire two-deep returns one player who got any All-SEC mention a year ago (Hunter Henry), and the running back position is in good hands with rising star sophomore Alex Collins.
However, other than that, the Razorbacks have major question marks all over the depth chart heading into spring camp.
|Sept. 6||Nicholls State|
|Oct. 4||Bye Week|
|Nov. 8||Bye Week|
Arkansas Razorbacks 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 3-9 (0-8 SEC)
Spring Practice Opens: March 16
Spring Game: April 26
Three Things to Watch in Arkansas' 2014 Spring Practice
Find balance on offense
Bielema made his living in the Big Ten pounding the football (unless Russell Wilson was under center) and that won’t change too dramatically at Arkansas. But after finishing 114th in passing offense and 21st in rushing offense, finding balance will be imperative for the Hogs moving forward. Does this mean that Brandon Allen is the final answer under center? He has the experience edge but after completing just 49.6-percent of his passes and dealing with a shoulder injury, Bielema has decided to open up the QB competition this spring. Redshirt freshmen Austin Allen and Damon Mitchell will both get tons of reps, and early enrollee Rafe Peavey enters campus with loads of recruiting hype and expectations. This team must find balance on offense if the Bielema regime expects to reach the postseason in its second year in town. This also includes finding a playmaking wide receiver as well as the top three returning receivers combined for 34 catches last fall.
Get to know the new defensive staff
After allowing 475.3 yards per game in SEC play (105th nationally), Bielema overhauled the defensive coaching staff. Robb Smith is now the defensive coordinator, Rory Segrest is the new defensive line coach and Clay Jennings in the new defensive backs coach. This group needs to get to know their roster and organize the depth chart as they show up from Rutgers, Samford and TCU, respectively. Arkansas ranked 104th nationally in pass efficiency defense and was 102nd nationally yards per play allowed at 6.1, which can’t continue if the Hogs expect to reach a bowl game in 2014. Specifically, filling the gaps left by end Chris Smith, linebacker Jarrett Lake and safety Eric Bennett will be critical this spring. Names like Trey Flowers, Braylon Mitchell and Alan Turner may be prepared to take starring roles but getting the nomenclature, signage and general rapport with the new coaching staff will be essential if this unit is going to improve.
Replace Travis Swanson...
And to a lesser extent, tackle David Hurd. The running game will always be the foundation of Bielema’s offensive attack and there is some nice talent for line coach Sam Pittman to work with in ’14. However, Swanson was arguably the best player on the team and was the only first-team All-SEC selection last fall. Finding a new pivot to manage the offense line, developing young talent like Denver Kirkland and stabilizing the pecking order at the tackle position is huge for a team that did only one thing well in 2013 — run the ball and protect the quarterback. Luke Charpentier is a senior and possibly the top candidate to replace Swanson but sophomore Cordale Boyd will press him for time this spring. Additionally, keep Frank Ragnow on the back burner as he will arrive on campus this summer and could be the long-term solution to replace Swanson.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 3-5
Arkansas should be able to run the football on offense again in 2014 with seven starters returning, including one of the best backfields in the SEC. But this coaching staff doesn’t really know what it has at either quarterback or wide receiver and is replacing its top offensive lineman. Finding balance on offense will be crucial because it doesn’t appear that the defense will be all that improved. Only four starters are back and the star power is gone (Smith, Bennett). Even the schedule is nasty for Bielema, as things get started with road trips to Auburn and Texas Tech in the first three weeks. Three wins in the non-conference would be a great step and an upset (or two) at home against an SEC power — Alabama, Georgia, LSU or Ole Miss — will be mandatory if the Razorbacks are going to be bowling at season’s end.