How far away from contender status are the 2019 Arkansas Razorbacks? Based on a winless conference circuit in Chad Morris' debut season and a couple of ugly nonconference losses, it would seem like a long way.
Arkansas must get control of its turnover margin, get stronger and tougher in the trenches, add speed and more dynamic talent throughout the lineup, play tighter on special teams and upgrade its quarterback play to start winning games in the SEC West.
The Razorbacks should make at least marginal improvement in each of those areas, but they will likely have to battle to achieve bowl eligibility before they can start dreaming about New Year’s Day games.
The Razorbacks added a top-25 class of prospects during a roster overhaul as they try to pack in quality depth.
Previewing Arkansas' Offense for 2019
There was significant turnover at quarterback, with Morris and offensive coordinator Joe Craddock welcoming in a former pupil as Ty Storey and Cole Kelley, who combined for 11 starts in 2018, transferred out.
Former SMU quarterback Ben Hicks holds the inside position for the starting job. Hicks passed for 9,081 yards, with 71 touchdowns and 34 interceptions in three seasons at SMU. His knowledge of the offense and ability to serve as an instructor on and off the field for the rest of the unit hold great value and should lead to more cohesive offensive performance for a unit that ranked 118th in the nation in total offense (335.7 ypg) and 114th in scoring (21.7 ppg).
The other top candidates are redshirt freshman Connor Noland, who pitched for the Hogs' baseball team in the spring, and Texas A&M graduate transfer Nick Starkel.
Top tailbacks Rakeem Boyd and Devwah Whaley missed most of spring drills, giving the bulk of the top reps to junior Chase Hayden, who had a solid freshman season in 2017. That trio should give the Razorbacks a potent rushing attack.
Deon Stewart, slot man De'Vion Warren, Michael Woods and 6'5" true freshman Trey Knox are likely to become the top targets, with speedster Jordan Jones, Koilan Jackson and a few others in the mix. The group has to get better at creating space and become better blockers. Cheyenne O'Grady has already established himself as one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the country, but his blocking needs improvement.
Injuries hampered the Hogs' offensive line last year. Left tackle Colton Jackson and center Ty Clary are the lone returning starters. Jackson was having a good spring before a minor knee injury cost him the last week and a half. Austin Capps, Shane Clenin and Ryan Winkel will vie for reps at guard. Dalton Wagner and Noah Gatlin are the top options at right tackle. Junior college transfers Myron Cunningham and Chibueze Nwanna are expected to contribute. Improved play from this unit is imperative for the Morris offense to bloom in Year 2.
Previewing Arkansas' Defense for 2019
Coordinator John Chavis wants the attack level to be cranked up in Year 2 of his system with the Razorbacks. His front clearly had the edge during spring while facing a constantly evolving offensive line. Having seniors in McTelvin Agim and T.J. Smith as interior linemen is a strong starting point, but edge players such as Dorian Gerald, Gabe Richardson, Jamario Bell and signee Mataio Soli must get better against the run and be more impactful pass rushers.
Middle linebacker De'Jon Harris anchors the unit after ranking third in the SEC last season with 118 tackles. The linebacking corps has been thin in recent years. Bumper Pool and Hayden Henry are in line to grab starting slots, while Grant Morgan, Andrew Parker and Giovanni LaFrance look like top options off the bench.
The Razorbacks also look to be thin in the secondary but return a handful of players with starting experience, led by junior safety Kamren Curl, sophomore cornerback Jarques McClellion and nickel D'Vone McClure. When the unit had to cover long, there were too many breakdowns a year ago, and tackling must improve. Adding speed and playing faster are critical. Sophomores Montaric "Buster" Brown and Joe Foucha look primed to win starting jobs at cornerback and free safety, respectively. Depth looks to be youth driven, with players such as Myles Mason, LaDarrius Bishop and true freshmen Greg Brooks Jr. and Devin Bush likely to be the top backups.
Previewing Arkansas' Specialists for 2019
The return of senior Connor Limpert is a strong start for the kicking units, which had their struggles a year ago, including the embarrassing psych job 90-yard punt return touchdown by North Texas that got hyped all over the Internet. Warren is a weapon on kickoff returns. Deon Stewart is likely to retain the punt return job after showing flashes as a junior. Reid Bauer took over the punting chores a few games into 2018, and the sophomore needs to be much better — as does the entire unit.
There are too many areas of need that have to be shored up to think that the Razorbacks can be a player in the SEC West this fall. A sweep of four nonconference games and a couple of SEC victories to reach bowl eligibility are within the realm of possibility.