When college football fans last left the Arkansas Razorbacks, they had flipped the switch on a 2-4 start to finish the year 8-5 (5-3 SEC), including season-ending wins against the Missouri Tigers and Kansas State Wildcats in the Liberty Bowl. The Hogs had their share of shortcomings early in the year against Toledo, Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Alabama, then continuing that trend in a tough late November 51-50 loss to Mississippi State. The highlights included a 24-20 road win over Tennessee and back-to-back road wins against then-No. 19 Ole Miss and No. 9 LSU.
Arkansas was stacked with talent on offense with All-American tight end Hunter Henry (first team) and guard Sebastian Tretola (second), along with All-SEC running back Alex Collins. All three key players are off to the NFL and the other losses for the Hogs on that side of the ball include center Mitch Smother and left tackle Denver Kirkland. Perhaps the biggest loss of all will be senior All-SEC quarterback Brandon Allen. While it will be tough to replace Collins’ 1,577 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns, it will be even more difficult to find a quarterback like Allen, who threw for 3,440 yards with 30 scores while only tossing eight picks.
If there is one silver lining to the transition from 2015 to ‘16, it is that only one key contributor on defense – safety Rohan Gaines – has departed. The bad news is this means that majority of a unit that allowed 275 passing yards per game a year ago is back. But help may have arrived in Fayetteville at the most opportune time.
The Razorbacks have a lot of holes to fill on offense and have a lot of work to do on defense if head coach Bret Bielema is to continue his two-year trend of improving by one game in the win-loss column year after year. This means that these spring practices are crucial for this team.
5 Storylines to Watch in Arkansas’ Spring Practice
1. Filling Holes Along the Offensive Line
Whatever Arkansas does on offense in 2016, it all starts up front. In the offseason, offensive line coach Sam Pittman left for Georgia, and Bielema hired Kurt Anderson away from the Buffalo Bills to fill the vacancy. Anderson has college and NFL experience with Bielema hoping the latter will pay off during a big transition season.
As has already been mentioned, Arkansas must replace most of its offensive line, from center all the way over to left tackle. Frank Ragnow and Zach Rogers should battle it out at center. Jalen Merrick should push for time at tackle or guard in the spring. Two newcomers, junior college transfers Paul Ramirez and Terrance Malone, could fill spots at tackle and guard respectively.
2. Who Starts at Quarterback?
The early favorite to replace Brandon Allen is younger brother Austin Allen. Austin saw time in three games last season completing one pass in three attempts for 35 yards and a touchdown. Austin will be a junior in 2016 making the upcoming season his fourth in Fayetteville. He should know the playbook, players, and game day experience well but now he will have to put it all to practice.
There is a logjam behind Allen with Rafe Peavy, Ty Storey, and USC transfer Ricky Town all wanting a shot at being the next starting quarterback or at least the backup. Class of 2016 quarterback Cole Kelley (6-7, 235) from Louisiana signed with the Hogs, adding another big armed, pro-style quarterback to the mix. Arkansas could lose a quarterback via transfer once spring practices are over depending on how everything plays out.
3. The Next 1,000-Yard Rusher
Over the last three seasons Arkansas has had a 1,000-yard rusher in each of the three campaigns, thanks to the efforts of Alex Collins (2013-15) and Jonathan Williams (2014). But this duo is off to the NFL with Williams needing to show teams and scots that he is completely recovered from the ankle injury that ended his senior season before it even got started. The remaining options on the roster are two injury-prone ball carriers in senior Kody Walker and sophomore Rawleigh Williams and a pair of true freshmen – Devwah Whaley and T.J Hammonds.
Walker rushed for 410 yards and six touchdowns on 90 carries last season while Williams played in seven games as a true freshman. He ran for 259 yards and a score on 56 carries before a horrific neck injury shortened his season. If Walker can stay healthy and Williams bounces back to 100 percent by fall camp, Arkansas is set in the backfield and looking good. And if the Razorbacks have to rely on Whaley and Hammonds, this might not be a bad thing either. Whaley was widely considered a top-five Class of 2016 running back and Hammonds is an all-purpose playmaker with size (5-11, 196).
4. Can Arkansas Play with Three Linebackers?
Under defensive coordinator Robb Smith, Arkansas normally runs a 4-3 scheme. Last season, a strong-side linebacker did not emerge, forcing the Hogs to ditch a “Sam” going with Brooks Ellis and true freshman Dre Greenlaw in the middle.
Arkansas’ rush defense was one of the best in the nation, finishing ranked No. 12 allowing just 116.5 yards per contest. Having a third linebacker that can help cover tight ends and stop the run would be nice. The Hogs picked up three linebackers in their 2016 class with safety Alexy Jean-Baptiste having the size (6-3, 205) to play linebacker or in the secondary.
Will the influx of new talent mixed with a bunch of underclassmen force a Sam linebacker forward and give Arkansas a reliable two-deep unit?
5. Can the Secondary Stop the Pass?
The Hogs got burned early and often against spread teams in 2015. Two of Arkansas’ first four games are against top-notch spread teams in TCU (Sept. 10) and Texas A&M (Sept. 24). Other games against typically pass-heavy teams include the usual SEC foes: Ole Miss, Auburn, Florida and Mississippi State. Good thing for Arkansas only Ole Miss has a true returning starter coming back under center.
The other good news is former Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads is the new defensive backs coach. Rhoads built his reputation as a defensive coordinator, so fingers crossed he can make a difference with this unit. It will not take much and the luck of the draw might be on Arkansas’ side in 2016.
Arkansas’ Pre-Spring Outlook in the SEC
The offensive line has to develop and the new starting quarterback has to prove he can hit the open receiver. The one thing the Razorbacks have coming back in abundance are pass-catching threats, which should make the transition to the new signal-caller easier. Five of the top six receiving options are back minus Hunter Henry, last season’s Mackey Award winner. However, the feeling among the coaching staff is that senior Jeremy Sprinkle could do the same thing in 2016.
Arkansas should be fantastic up front on defense. If new assistant coach Paul Rhoads can make a difference with the secondary, it will make the Razorbacks that much more imposing on that side of the ball.
The Hogs have a lot of work to do but they have pieces to work with at key spots. The development of the secondary and projected starting quarterback Austin Allen will be key during the spring. Can the secondary make significant gains in the spring? Can Allen move the ball downfield limiting turnovers the way big brother Brandon did over his last two season in Fayetteville? If the answer is yes to both, Arkansas could very well be on its way to a nine- or even 10-win season in 2016. If not, the Hogs could struggle to finish at .500 with TCU, Alabama, LSU, Florida, Ole Miss and Auburn all looking like tough games.
— 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.