By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Arkansas Razorbacks 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 11-2, 6-2 SEC
Spring practice: March 14-April 21
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 6
Passing: Tyler Wilson, 277 of 438, 3,638 yds., 24 TDs, 6 INTs
Rushing: Dennis Johnson, 106 car., 670 yds., 3 TDs
Receiving: Chris Gragg, 41 rec., 518 yds., 2 TDs
Tackles: Alonzo Highsmith, 80
Sacks: Alonzo Highsmith, 4.5
Interceptions: Eric Bennett, 3
Redshirts to watch: WR Kane Whitehurst, WR Quinta Funderburk, OL Andrew Peterson, DT DeMarcus Hodge, CB Kelvin Fisher
Early Enrollees: TE Demetrius Dean, DE Austin Flynn
JUCO Transfers to watch: DE Austin Flynn, WR Demetrius Wilson
Sept. 1 Jacksonville State
Sept. 8 UL Monroe
Sept. 15 Alabama
Sept. 22 Rutgers
Sept. 29 Texas A&M (Site TBD)
Oct. 6 at Auburn
Oct. 13 Kentucky
Oct. 27 Ole Miss
Nov. 3 Tulsa
Nov. 10 at South Carolina
Nov. 17 at Mississippi State
Nov. 24 LSU
Offensive Strength: Quarterback Tyler Wilson pondered a move to the NFL, but decided to return for his senior year at Arkansas. Wilson’s decision to come back to Fayetteville will keep the Razorbacks in the thick of the SEC and national title race. Running back is also a strength, as Knile Davis returns after missing all of last season with a leg injury and Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo are back in the fold after combining for over 1,000 rushing yards last season.
Offensive Weakness: With Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs all out of eligibility, Arkansas will have a revamped group of receivers in 2012. There’s some nice talent returning, as Cobi Hamilton grabbed 34 passes for 542 yards and four scores last season, but there may be a transition period for Wilson and the passing attack.
Defensive Strength: Even though end Jake Bequette is gone, the Razorbacks should field a formidable defensive line. Tenarius Wright was limited to eight games due to injury, but will team with Chris Smith and Trey Flowers to form a solid trio at end. Byran Jones and DeQuinta Jones are back at tackle, giving Arkansas the necessary pieces to finish higher than 74th in rush defense next season.
Defensive Weakness: The Razorbacks aren’t in terrible shape on defense, but each level loses a key player from 2011. End Jake Bequette recorded 10 sacks and was the team’s best pass rusher. Joining Bequette as a key departure is linebacker Jerry Franklin (second-team All-SEC) and safety Tramain Thomas. How will the Razorbacks replace that leadership in 2012?
Spring Storylines Facing the Razorbacks
1. Is this the year? Arkansas has posted 21 victories and made appearances in the two top-notch bowl games ( over the last two seasons. The Razorbacks have inched closer to the top of the SEC West under coach Bobby Petrino and will have an opportunity to win the division in 2012. Petrino made a few changes to his coaching staff, bringing his brother Paul back from Illinois to coordinate the offense, while former Ohio State assistant Paul Haynes will lead the defense. Haynes did a good job of preparing the defense for the Cotton Bowl, but this will be his first full season going through the SEC. With Alabama replacing a handful of key starters on defense and LSU breaking in a new quarterback, the door is open for the Razorbacks to win the SEC West. The schedule also sets up perfectly for Arkansas, as both the Crimson Tide and Tigers visit Fayetteville in 2012.
2. Quarterback Tyler Wilson earned first-team All-SEC honors after throwing for 3,638 yards and 24 touchdowns last year. The good news for Wilson and the Arkansas offense is the line should be improved in 2012. Grant Freeman and Grant Cook depart, but guard Alvin Bailey should be one of the top linemen in college football, while Travis Swanson provides steady leadership at center. The bad news for Wilson and the offense is the departure of three key receivers, including All-SEC performers Joe Adams and Jarius Wright. Cobi Hamilton is expected to be the new No. 1 target after catching 34 passes for 542 yards last season. Joining Hamilton as top targets in the receiving corps should be Marquel Wade, Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon, while tight end Chris Gragg is back after catching 41 balls last year. There’s talent coming back to Arkansas’ receiving corps, but it’s largely unproven. It’s hard to imagine much of a step back for the Razorbacks passing attack, but this group is worth monitoring throughout spring practice.
3. Arkansas’ 2011 SEC title hopes suffered a huge setback before the season even started, losing running back Knile Davis to an ankle injury in fall practice. Davis was terrific in 2010, rushing for 1,322 yards and 13 scores on 204 attempts. Although Davis has some rust to knock off, all indications are that he will be 100 percent when the season opens in September. With Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo returning, Arkansas has two solid fallback options in case Davis is limited early in the year. Assuming Davis is healthy, he should challenge for All-American honors in 2012.
4. If Arkansas wants to knock off LSU and Alabama in the SEC West, it has to show improvement on defense. The Razorbacks don’t need to finish among the top 10 defenses in college football, but the stats have to be better. Arkansas finished 74th nationally in rush defense last season, ranked sixth in the SEC stopping the pass and 47th nationally by allowing 23.4 points a game. New coordinator Paul Haynes did a good job of preparing Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl victory over Kansas State, but he will have to find replacements for three of the defense’s top players from 2011 - end Jake Bequette, linebacker Jerry Franklin and safety Tramain Thomas. If the Razorbacks can improve their rush defense and force more turnovers, that should be enough to close the gap even more on LSU and Alabama in the SEC West race. However, that's easier said than done considering how important Bequette, Franklin and Thomas were to this defense.
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