David Williams went from a South Carolina graduate transfer to the Razorbacks' leading rusher this season
The Arkansas Razorbacks’ 2017 season certainly did not turn out the way many had hoped. After a three-season record of 22-17 with some fantastic conference wins, head coach Bret Bielema and company slipped back into an unwanted area experienced during his first season with the Hogs, ending this season 4-8 overall and just 1-7 in the SEC. The result was a dismissal of athletic director Jeff Long, Bielema, and a complete shakeup of the staff with the hiring of SMU head coach Chad Morris.
Despite the tough season and long list of injuries to starters on both sides of the ball, the Razorbacks played hard giving fans something to cheer throughout the 2017 schedule.
Offensive MVP: David Williams, RB
Williams, a graduate transfer from South Carolina, was a pleasant surprise for Razorback Nation in 2017. The hard-nosed runner ended up leading the Hogs in rushing yards (656) and touchdowns (8), passing opening game starter Devwah Whaley in the stat column by season’s end. Whaley started 11 games to Williams’ one, but Williams got stronger as the season went along putting up a total of 231 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries against LSU, Mississippi State and Missouri to end the season. Williams also helped in the passing attack, catching 10 passes for 171 yards and two more scores.
Defensive MVP: De’Jon Harris, LB
Harris (above, right) was one of the SEC’s most productive defenders throughout the season, racking up 115 tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, and 3.5 sacks, all team highs. The sophomore missed out on All-SEC honors but gives high hope for the Razorbacks’ defense in 2018.
Best Freshman: Chase Hayden, RB
Devwah Whaley was the starter for the Hogs in the backfield, but Hayden was instant offense off the bench. Hayden ended the year with 326 yards with four touchdowns on 61 carries before suffering a lower leg fracture against Auburn. Even though he played in just seven games, he opened many eyes with his 120 rushing yards on just 14 carries in the season opener against FCS opponent Florida A&M. Hayden’s field vision and speed gives him the opportunity to score from anywhere on the field.
Best Newcomer: Jonathan Nance, WR
The signing of Nance out of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College was a blessing in disguise. Arkansas lost five of its top six receivers from 2016 due to graduation and their lone holdover, Jared Cornelius, played in just three games before an injury ended his season. Nance emerged as the Razorbacks’ top target, leading the way in receptions (37), receiving yards (539), and touchdown catches (5), as he developed good chemistry with both quarterbacks – Austin Allen and Cole Kelley.
Best Play of the Season: Jonathan Nance's 49-Yard TD Reception vs. TCU
With high hopes for the season still in the air in Game 2 of the season, Arkansas answered the call against then-No. 23 TCU. The Horned Frogs’ opening possession of the was an eight-play, 45-yard drive capped by a 1-yard Sewo Olonilua touchdown run. The Razorbacks responded with a six-play, 75-yard drive punctuated on a 49-yard TD strike from Austin Allen to Nance.
Best Performance: Cole Kelley vs. Alabama
Playing against one of the nation’s best defenses and in front of an offensive line that had trouble pass protecting, Kelley proved his toughness against Alabama in Bryant-Denny Stadium. In a losing effort, Kelley dropped back 42 times, completing 23 passes for 200 yards with a touchdown and an interception in his first collegiate start.
Best Game: 38-37 Win at Ole Miss
With morale low on the team and in the stands, the Hogs grouped together amid a three-game losing streak to defeat Ole Miss 38-37 in Oxford. The Razorbacks turned back the clock, running for 260 yards led by T.J. Hammonds (84 yards on 11 carries) while Cole Kelley finished with 189 passing yards and three touchdowns. The defense and special teams also stepped up highlighted by a 22-yard scoop-and-score by Kevin Richardson late in the fourth quarter that trimmed the deficit to two points (37-35). A 34-yard field goal by Connor Limpert with four seconds left gave Arkansas what turned out to be its only SEC win of the year.
Defining Moment: 50-43 Overtime Loss to Texas A&M
After a 28-7 home loss to then-No. 23 TCU on national TV, the Razorbacks traveled to AT&T Stadium to face Texas A&M to open SEC play. Arkansas was up 28-24 heading into the fourth quarter but gave up 19 points in the final frame allowing A&M to take the game into overtime. A 10-yard pass from Kellen Mond to Christian Kirk sealed the Hogs’ fate. The loss was the sixth consecutive to the Aggies, becoming symbolic that nothing had changed from one year to the next for Arkansas among the coaching ranks.
Biggest Surprise: Devwah Whaley, RB
Throughout Bret Bielema’s tenure at Arkansas, the Hogs have consistently produced 1,000-yard rushers. From Alex Collins in 2013, to Collins and Jonathan Williams in ‘14, Collins again in ‘15, and Rawleigh Williams in ‘16, everyone expected Whaley to be the next on the list. After a true freshman season of 602 rushing yards with three touchdowns, and Williams retiring from football due to a neck injury, the stage was set for Whaley but he never got on track, ending the year with just 559 yards and seven scores on the ground.
Biggest Disappointment: Austin Allen, QB
After Allen led the SEC in passing yards (3,430) in 2016, much was expected of him going into the season. Taking 34 sacks during his junior season seemed to take a toll. Allen never looked comfortable in the pocket, leading to a letdown season with 1,427 passing yards,10 touchdowns and five interceptions. Allen missed four games in the middle of the season but came back for the final three, which included a seaosn-best 313-yard effort against Missouri in the finale.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most Next Season: Frank Ragnow, Center
Even though the offensive line never gelled when it came to run blocking or pass protection, Ragnow was one of the best players on the Hogs’ roster regardless of position. Ragnow was on track to be considered for the Rimington Trophy, given to the top center in the nation, and All-SEC honors, before a high ankle sprain suffered against Auburn cut his final season short by five games.
Player to Watch in 2018: Cole Kelley, QB
Time will tell if Kelley fits into new head coach Chad Morris’ offensive scheme, but assuming he does, the future appears very bright for the gun-slinging quarterback. At 6-foot-7 and 265 pounds, the freshman was reminiscent of a young Ben Roethlisberger, displaying a strong arm, toughness in the pocket, and a moxie that can lead teams to championships with the right pieces around him.
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Chad Morris’ Offense
Since his days at Clemson as offensive coordinator (2011-14), Morris has been widely regarded for his offensive mind and creativity. The Hogs may take to the new plays and terminology quickly, but the question is, does the new head coach have the necessary pieces to run the spread effectively? The answer will not come in the spring or in fall camp, and may not be answered until the fourth game of the 2018 season when Arkansas travels to Jordan-Hare Stadium to face Auburn.
— 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 and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.