The Razorbacks rank No. 29 in Athlon’s Top 130 for 2017
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema is turning to former Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads to turn around a defense that got gashed repeatedly on the ground last season. Rhoads has some pieces to work with, especially in the secondary, but the unit as a whole is inexperienced and will be making the transition to a new scheme. On offense, quarterback Austin Allen returns but will be working with a new batch of pass catchers and a complementary option in the running game will need to emerge. The Razorbacks have enough talent to win a fair number of games, but this team appears to have too many question marks to contend in the rugged SEC West.
Previewing Arkansas Football’s Offense for 2017
For Arkansas to become a factor in the rigorous SEC West, the Razorbacks will need to make strides in red zone conversions, pass protection and short-yardage running.
Quarterback Austin Allen was strong in the first half of 2016, with 18 touchdowns and six interceptions and a 63 percent completion rate through seven games, including a 400-yard game against Alabama. However, after a bruised knee at Auburn, he was much less comfortable the rest of the way, with seven touchdowns, nine interceptions and a 58.8 percent rate. Red zone struggles, including interceptions, cropped up in losses to Alabama, Texas A&M and Missouri.
Rawleigh Williams and Devwah Whaley were slated to form one of the best running back duos in the SEC. However, Williams retired after a neck injury in the spring game, leaving Whaley as the team's No. 1 back. The sophomore is certainly capable after rushing for 602 yards and three scores last year. However, the Razorbacks need to find a No. 2 threat to take some of the workload away from Whaley. The offensive line features four starters returning, anchored by center Frank Ragnow. Fullback Kendrick Jackson is a powerful lead blocker. The Razorbacks must improve on their 35 sacks allowed.
Jared Cornelius is the most experienced returning receiver, and there’s plenty of opportunity around him. A fleet of inexperienced wideouts will have to fill the void, starting with junior college transfers Brandon Martin and Jonathan Nance, and including Deon Stewart, La’Michael Pettway and Jordan Jones. T.J. Hammonds will work as a slot receiver and backup tailback.
Previewing Arkansas Football’s Defense for 2017
Bijhon Jackson and Austin Capps are expected to be the first two nose guards, while McTelvin Agim and Armon Watts lead the pack of largely inexperienced defensive ends. Redshirt freshmen Briston Guidry and Jonathan Marshall should impact the rotation.
The Razorbacks struggled with linebacker depth recently, and they’re adding a spot to the unit — though the outside positions will utilize some of the roster’s would-be ends. Randy Ramsey manned the Razor and Karl Roesler the Hog in spring. Dre Greenlaw, who sat out spring recovering from foot surgery, is the top inside linebacker, with Grant Harris, De’Jon Harris and Josh Harris expected to contribute.
Kevin Richardson’s recovery from a torn pectoral muscle will give the Razorbacks six defensive backs with starting experience, including safeties Josh Liddell, De’Andre Coley and Santos Ramirez. Ryan Pulley is probably one of the SEC’s more underrated cover corners. Henre’ Toliver and Britto Tutt also figure in at cornerback and/or nickel.
Previewing Arkansas Football’s Specialists for 2017
Junior Cole Hedlund has a leg up on Connor Limpert and Jon Fagg to re-claim the placekicking job. The Razorbacks must replace standout Toby Baker at punter, and Blake Johnson is in position to win the role. Cornelius has been an above-average punt returner the last couple of seasons.
A defense that struggled in 2016 has gotten younger, but there is renewed enthusiasm that the scheme change under Rhoads’ watch will lead to better results. The offense has potential, but some untested receivers will need to step up to complement Cornelius, and Allen must continue to progress.
Another winning record and bowl game is highly likely, but the Hogs will have to show significant improvement all the way around to contend in the SEC West.