Was Arkansas' improvement to a 3–7 record in the COVID-impacted, conference-only 2020 season a legitimate step forward or only a mirage?
The answers will come this fall when second-year head coach Sam Pittman and the Razorbacks bring 17 starters back for another SEC fun run.
Arkansas broke a 20-game SEC skid with an upset at No. 16 Mississippi State in Week 2 last year and also downed Ole Miss and Tennessee at home. However, the Razorbacks dropped tight, last-minute affairs against Missouri and LSU and just missed a major upset at Auburn thanks to some questionable last-minute officiating.
Pittman's aim is to continue bulking up on both lines to better convert and stop short-yardage runs and to lean on teams late in games. The Razorbacks trail many of their SEC counterparts in that department heading into 2021.
Arkansas returns nine starters on defense, its entire offensive line and just about every top target from last season, but the Hogs will have a new quarterback, with sophomore KJ Jefferson entering fall camp as the leader.
Key areas of emphasis in spring drills were pass protection, scheming up ways to mount a pass rush and making much-needed strides on special teams.
Previewing Arkansas' Offense for 2021
Jefferson opened spring drills as the first-team quarterback and didn't lose any ground to top backup Malik Hornsby. Pittman believes the dual-threat quarterbacks will be more natural fits for the Kendal Briles-coordinated offense than 2020 starter Feleipe Franks and open up more dimensions to the playbook.
All five linemen return, led by left tackle Myron Cunningham and right guard Ty Clary, but the unit must be more forceful run blockers and more effective pass protectors after Arkansas allowed 34 sacks. Pittman is considered a top-notch developer and recruiter of offensive linemen, so depth should be stronger as the Hogs build from the inside out. The Razorbacks lost offensive line coach Brad Davis to LSU in June. Cody Kennedy is expected to shift from tight ends to coach the offensive line.
Trelon Smith looks like a scatback, but he's been durable, explosive and surprisingly tough between the tackles. The coaches expect to complement him and T.J. Hammonds with more big-back relief from Dominique Johnson and Rocket Sanders. Tailback signee AJ Green projects as a college star.
Treylon Burks and tight ends Blake Kern and Hudson Henry lead a receiving unit that needs to get better separation this season and improve as blockers. De'Vion Warren (knee surgery) should be close to full speed by the opener. The loss of Mike Woods to transfer was a blow.
Previewing Arkansas' Defense for 2021
The inability to rattle opposing quarterbacks with consistency was a major flaw for last year's team, and Pittman changed out his defensive line and linebacker assistants, skewing younger with Jermial Ashley up front and Michael Scherer at linebacker.
The Razorbacks look committed to running more three-man fronts with widened ends to free up space for more pass-rushing creativity. That means the linebackers and safeties must be able to plug interior gaps with help from the nose guard. The unit needs a higher level of play from linemen like Dorian Gerald, Eric Gregory, Isaiah Nichols, Zach Williams and Mataio Soli.
Defensive coordinator Barry Odom feels there is depth in the secondary, so more defensive backs will roam the field this fall, led by hard-hitting safeties Jalen Catalon and Joe Foucha.
Arkansas got great mileage out of its zone coverages but must improve when man-to-man is demanded. Cornerback Montaric Brown needs a few others to rise up to his level of coverage, starting with speedster LaDarrius Bishop and including Greg Brooks Jr., Hudson Clark, Khari Johnson and others.
Grant Morgan and Bumper Pool return at linebacker; both have loads of experience, and both had 100-plus tackles last season.
There are questions about whether any defensive end can win often enough to become a consistent sack threat, so there's an onus to provide better technique and scheming up front to help the veterans lift their games.
Previewing Arkansas' Specialists for 2021
Last season, the Razorbacks had a virtually nonexistent return game, the placekicking was subpar and the coverage teams had issues in a few games. Arkansas had punts blocked in two of the first three games, both leading to touchdowns, but the punting average went up with Reid Bauer taking over the duties and averaging 43.5 yards. Burks was a punt return threat in 2019 and needs a return to form. The kickoff return job is up for grabs. True freshman Cameron Little, an early enrollee, will try to push past Matthew Phillips in the placekicking derby.
It looks like Arkansas will have a bigger, more rugged team to compete in the trenches in 2021, but it's hard to reach top-of-the-conference standards in two seasons. Will the quarterbacks deliver and substantially improve the running game? Can the defense shake up opposing quarterbacks? There are still plenty of questions as the Razorbacks try to do more than just earn respect in Year Two under Pittman. Contending in the SEC West isn't realistic in 2021, but being more competitive against the top teams is a legitimate expectation.
National Ranking: 44
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(Treylon Burks photo by Michael Morrison/Arkansas Athletics)