Hope and eternal optimism may forever burn in the hearts of Arkansas Razorback college football fans, but since the 2015 season there has been little the head coaches on The Hill have done to stoke the passion. That is, until Sam Pittman took over in 2020. The Hogs won three conference games for the first time since 2016 igniting expectations on the gridiron going forward. Now Pittman and the team have a follow-up act to prepare for this spring with more questions than answers.
One of the downfalls for Arkansas during their four-season stretch of playing losing football has been the offensive line. As long as everyone stays healthy, the play in the trenches will once again be a strength. All five starting linemen return with Ricky Stromberg at center, Brady Latham and Ty Clary at the guards, and Myron Cunningham and Dalton Wagner at tackle. Adding to the potential of a strong push towards a winning season is All-SEC receiver Treylon Burks. Burks ended his sophomore season with 51 receptions covering 820 yards with seven touchdowns, emerging as one of the SEC's best.
On the other side of the ball, the Razorbacks were besieged with injuries and COVID protocols yielding to some valiant yet uneven performances. The unit wound up as the conference's 11th-ranked defense allowing 451.7 yards per game, tying LSU at No. 10 at 34.9 points per game. With the forced youth movement on defense, can this group tighten in Year 2 under coordinator Barry Odom?
5 Storylines to Watch During Arkansas' Spring Practices
1. Depth at running back
Going into the 2020 season the Razorbacks were looking good at the tailback position with the return of Rakeem Boyd. Nagging injuries and an early opt-out limited Boyd to seven games and 309 rushing yards with three touchdowns after receiving preseason second-team All-SEC recognition. The weight of carrying the pigskin fell to scatback Trelon Smith. The junior played above his listed size (5-9, 185), finishing with more than 700 yards and five scores on the ground, but he will need help over the course of a 12-game season.
Offensive coordinator Kendal Briles will have to rely on underclassmen to fill the void. Class of 2020 recruit Dominque Johnson is a bruiser who could become a short-yardage impact player. The headliners may be true freshmen AJ Green and Javion Hunt. Both Green and Hunt have "SEC speed" capable of taking it to the house with a crease into the second level. As with any freshman, will Green and Hunt be ready to contribute at a high level?
2. Pass defense
Taking a hard look at Arkansas' pass defense and the Razorbacks were middle-of-the-road statistically speaking at 259.6 yards per game allowed. Because the Hogs were dropping eight, there was no real pass rush coming from the three-man front with called linebacker blitzes responsible for a bulk of the team's 14 sacks. Perhaps the lumps taken with the youth movement on defense will pay dividends in 2021?
There are great individual pieces in the Hogs' secondary starting with safety Jalen Catalon. The pairing of Catalon with Joe Foucha arguably gives Arkansas one of the better safety combos in the SEC. At corner, Montaric Brown was solid throughout the 2020 season with a team-high six pass breakups and seven passes defended. Finding the other cover corner and a counted-upon nickel, along with depth will be a focus this spring. LaDarrius Bishop showed promise late at corner and Greg Brooks Jr. could be that nickel talent needed to take on slot and inside receivers. Only two corners were added in the 2021 recruiting class – Chase Lowery and Keuan Parker. Oddly, no pass-rushing end was signed.
3. Offensive play-calling
Without a true spring or offseason to work with his offensive unit, Briles did a good job preparing his group for the 10-game SEC schedule in his first season with Arkansas. His squad was eighth in both total (391.5 ypg) and scoring (25.7 ppg) offense. But questions loom about Briles' play-calling going into the 2021 season.
Through the 10-game schedule, Arkansas produced just 51 total points in the first quarter. The effort picked up in the second with 74 points, but then tailed off for 63 in the third and 69 in the fourth. Too many quick three-and-outs left a depleted Arkansas defense on the ropes in the second half with the opposition outscoring the Hogs 96-69. A temporary pass can be given to Briles, but in Year 2 he has to own it, especially with a full spring to acclimate himself to the talent on the roster.
4. Special teams returns
If getting field position for one's offense is the goal on special teams, the Hogs failed miserably. The opposition returned 23 punts for 263 yards while Arkansas took back four for 18. The differences were not much better on kickoffs with nine such returns attempted for Arkansas covering 157 yards compared to 14 for 345 for their opponents.
There was a time when Arkansas was dynamic in the return game with All-Americans in Dennis Johnson and Joe Adams. Much of the return game is getting the athletes to set up the blocks and a fearless returner ready to change the game. Can Arkansas help its cause this spring by finding the right crew to impact the third phase of the game in a positive way?
Florida graduate transfer Feleipe Franks was the glue holding the Arkansas offense together a year ago. With Franks testing the professional waters, the job is up for grabs this offseason. All eyes will turn to KJ Jefferson this spring. Jefferson appeared in five games completing 20 of 41 passes for 295 yards with three scores. Put in obvious running situations by Briles in the red zone, Jefferson's dual-threat abilities were limited, as everyone knew what was coming, rushing for 67 yards on 28 carries with two touchdowns.
Jefferson enters the spring as the favorite for the starting job, but could he be challenged? To that point, can a reliable backup step up? Malik Hornsby is the obvious No. 2 this spring with John Stephen Jones also in the mix. There will be heavy interest in three-star 2021 newcomers Lucas Coley and Landon Rogers. Another fresh face to the QB meeting room is Ole Miss transfer Kade Renfro, a three-star recruit from the 2020 class.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.