For the first time since 2012, the Arkansas Razorbacks have high expectations placed upon their shoulders entering the college football season. Athlon Sports has the Hogs ranked No. 16 entering the season after Arkansas went 7-6 in 2014 while navigating the NCAA’s toughest-ranked schedule in the nation.
Arkansas has nine starters coming back on offense and five on defense, so experience shouldn’t be an issue. The carryover from last season is expected to help head coach Bret Bielema continue his smash-mouth running attack that shortens the game by running out the clock and absolutely wears down opposing defenses in the second half, turning three-yard gains into five- and six-yard pickups.
The Hogs have some gaps to fill on defense if they hope to maintain the success the unit enjoyed in 2014, defensive coordinator Robb Smith’s first in Fayetteville. He flipped the Razorbacks from the No. 76 defense (413.4 yards per game) in the nation in 2013 to the No. 10 unit (323.4 ypg) last season.
The Razorbacks have high hopes for the 2015 season but if they want to play in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta in December they must solve these five major question marks before kicking things off at home against UTEP on Sept. 5.
Arkansas’ Five Biggest Fall Camp Storylines
1. Increase Production in the Passing Game/Develop Wide Receivers
Every team Arkansas played last year knew the Hogs were going to run the ball. Despite every defender, opposing defensive coordinator, and all those watching at home and in the stands knowing what was about to happen, Arkansas still shoved the pigskin down the opposition’s throat and did it well. The Hogs finished with the No. 24-ranked running attack, averaging 218.0 yards per game. Advanced stats show Arkansas’ tailbacks gained 2.8 yards per carry before first contact while facing a conference-tying high (LSU) 7.3 defenders in the box per play. This means a wide receiver has to be open somewhere.
Arkansas’ best pass-catching option last season was tight end Hunter Henry. Wideout Keon Hatcher led the team with 43 receptions for 558 yards, but Henry has the best hands and was the most consistent option. Third-year starting quarterback Brandon Allen passed for 2,285 yards with 20 touchdowns against five picks, becoming a game manager without taking unnecessary risks. If Arkansas is to ascend back into the land of the elite this offense must be able to come up with more than 188.0 passing yards per game in 2015. Hunter will not stretch defenses vertically the way a true No. 1 receiver can.
Help could already be in town with redshirt freshman receivers JoJo Robinson and Kendrick Edwards, junior college transfer Dominique Reed, and true freshman La’Michael Pettway. A passing attack by committee is fine but a playmaker, or two, has to come forward.
2. Get Linebackers Ready for SEC Play
Arkansas will miss NFL Draft pick Martrell Spaight. Spaight manned the weak-side linebacker position, leading the SEC with 128 tackles. Junior linebacker Brooks Ellis moves over from the middle to the weak side, putting sophomore Khalia Hackett in a pivotal position for the Hogs. The Hogs also lost strong-side linebacker Braylon Mitchell to graduation with junior Josh Williams in line to replace him as the starter.
Williams played in 13 games last season, finishing with 29 tackles, 1.5 tackles for a loss, and a sack. Hackett played in 11 games as a true freshman and recorded 10 tackles. A lot of responsibility is being leveraged on two potential question marks to track down SEC tailbacks and keep some of the best tight ends in the nation from moving the chains on third down.
3. Generate More Pressure on Opposing Quarterbacks
Arkansas was exceptional on defense last season but only came up with 24 sacks, which tied for 80th in the nation. Elite teams put pressure on opposing quarterbacks in crunch time, but who will be that guy for Arkansas this season?
The Hogs lost defensive end Trey Flowers and his team-high six sacks and 15.5 tackles for a loss to the NFL Draft. Junior defensive tackle Taiwan Johnson was second on the team with 4.5 sacks and his 8.0 tackles for a loss in 2014 are the most among any of the returnees.
The Hogs’ top defensive ends are JaMichael Winston, Deatrich Wise, Tevin Beanum, and junior college transfer Jeremiah Ledbetter. All four players are physically gifted and physically capable, coming in between 6-2 and 6-5 tall and weighing in around 270 pounds. A breakout star is not needed, although one would be nice, just as long as all four are consistent with their pass rush. More pressure should help the Razorbacks improve their No. 59 ranking on third-down conversions, after allowing opponents to succeed on 72 out of 182 opportunities in 2014.
4. Increased Productivity in Kick Return Game
Razorback Nation appreciated what they had in All-American punt returner Joe Adams and All-American kickoff returner Dennis Johnson, and would love to have a next generation reincarnation of either or both in 2015. But is any current Razorback able to do this?
The one promising kick returner the Hogs had in 2014, Korliss Marshall, left the team after off-the-field troubles. Marshall returned nine punts for 271 yards, including a 97-yard touchdown. The aforementioned Hatcher was second on the team with six returns for 139 yards, which translates to a respectable 23.2 yards per return.
Cornerback D.J. Dean had 11 punt returns for 121 yards, breaking one 63 yards that did not result in a touchdown. By season’s end he averaged 11.0 yards per return; not bad but half the return yards came on that one attempt. Remove the big return and Dean averaged 5.8 yards per return, which is not going to cut it if a SEC West title is desired.
5. Find Consistent Field Goal Kicker
Zach Hocker where are you? If Arkansas had a more reliable field goal kicker last season who knows how the Hogs would have ended their season? That doesn’t change the fact that Hocker, the Hogs’ all-time leader in scoring, is not walking back through the door thus Arkansas must find a way to carry on without him.
Adam McFain took over kicking duties midway through the season, finishing 7-of-10 with a long of 49 yards. The long-range makes are great, but a kicker that consistently hits from 40 yards in would make a world of difference to the Hogs in 2015. Arkansas got lucky last year, converting 12 of 19 fourth down attempts, 20th best in the nation. A kicker who can hit on stalled drives in or just outside of the red zone can take some heat off the Razorbacks’ offense and defense.
— 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. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and he recently started his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManinLA.