COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2012 PRESEASON TOP 25
SEC West PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Bret Bielema, (First Season) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jim Chaney | DEF. COORDINATOR: Chris Ash
Arkansas’ drastic personality change has begun. The retrofit to a beefier, drive-blocking unit preferred by new coach Bret Bielema took infant steps in the spring, and the Razorbacks hope to be in position to play what Bielema calls “big-boy football” in the fall.
It won’t be easy for a team that lost key personnel — most notably quarterback Tyler Wilson and wide receiver Cobi Hamilton — from what had been a pass-heavy system. Two areas where the Hogs expect immediate improvement are penalties and turnover margin — Arkansas tied for 118th nationally (minus-19) last year.
Sophomore Brandon Allen exited spring drills with an edge for the quarterback job over senior Brandon Mitchell, who spent almost all of 2012 at receiver. Mitchell decided to leave the team and transferred to NC State for the 2013 season.
Jonathan Williams looks to assume the lead tailback role, but support is needed and expected from big back Kody Walker, swift Nate Holmes and signee Alex Collins. Bruising fullback Kiero Small has outstanding lead-blocking credentials and can also play tailback.
Seniors Javontee Herndon, Julian Horton and Demetrius Wilson and sophomore Mekale McKay project as the top pass-catchers for new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
Senior Travis Swanson is back at center, a huge asset for the evolving offensive line, but the rest of the unit is a work in progress. Former walk-on David Hurd could start again at left tackle, joining guards Brey Cook and Mitch Smothers, tackle Grady Ollison and Swanson in the starting lineup. The Hogs signed a quality group of offensive linemen, led by Denver Kirkland.
Arkansas was perpetually understaffed on defense the last several seasons, so a rebuild isn’t likely to happen overnight. However, a significant improvement could be in the works for a unit that ranked 73rd nationally in 2012 (409.9 ypg), mainly because the defensive front is loaded with veterans who have already produced in the SEC.
Tackles Byran Jones and Robert Thomas and ends Chris Smith and Trey Flowers all have quality starting experience, giving Arkansas a chance to drum up quarterback pressure with a four-man rush.
A.J. Turner and Otha Peters, two of the veteran linebackers, were slowed by injuries in the spring. Senior Jarrett Lake caught linebacker position coach Randy Shannon’s eye and could be a leader on a unit that lacks experience. Myke Tavarres, a junior college signee who enrolled in school in January, is an impressive athlete.
Four starters return in the secondary — safeties Eric Bennett and Rohan Gaines, the leading returning tackler with 75, and corners Tevin Mitchel and Will Hines. The Razorbacks must get better on the back end, however, and junior college transfers Carroll Washington and Tiquention Coleman should help.
Zach Hocker is back for his senior year after a down season in which he made only 11-of-18 field goals. Hocker, also an ace kickoff specialist, might add punting duties to his résumé as well.
The Razorbacks have question marks in too many areas to be considered a contender. Having three head coaches in an eight-month span in the aftermath of the Bobby Petrino scandal has seemingly sidetracked a program that passed its way into the top 10 for a couple of seasons. Expecting a well-oiled transition to a stronger drive-blocking running game would be unreasonable. In a best-case scenario, quality blockers emerge across the board, quarterback play is efficient, the running game is unleashed and playmakers rise up on all three levels on defense. Even if several of those scenarios take place, the Razorbacks have a long trip back to SEC West contention.