The Arkansas offensive line should be one of the best in the nation with four starters returning but the defensive front four is more of an unknown at this point after the loss of a pair of All-SEC linemen and recent NFL Draft picks in end Trey Flowers and tackle Darius Philon.
The Hogs return two starters in the defensive trenches, end JaMichael Winston and tackle Taiwan Johnson.
Flowers, who was third on the team with 68 tackles and had a team-leading 15.5 tackles for a loss, was a fourth-round pick (101st overall) of the New England Patriots in May. Philon was seventh on the team in tackles with 46 and chipped in 11.5 tackles for a loss and was selected by the San Diego Chargers in the sixth round (192nd overall). Flowers also had a team-high 6.0 sacks while Philon was second with 4.5.
The production that Flowers and Philon contributed in sacks should be replaceable but their consistency of holding the line against the run and putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks is what will be missed most. Sophomore tackle Bijhon Jackson and junior Deatrich Wise are expected to fill in respectively for the two departed players.
Wise (6-2, 270) appears to have the physical presence to be an All-SEC performer. In 10 games played last year he had 13 tackles, 3.0 tackles for a loss, and 2.0 sacks. Expected to line up opposite of Wise is Winston. The junior appeared in all 13 games, recording 26 tackles, 2.0 tackles for a loss, but no sacks. This duo, with the help of junior college transfer Jeremiah Ledbetter and sophomore Tevin Beanum, must step up to help put pressure on opposing SEC quarterbacks to help a young but improving secondary on passing downs.
Jackson also got a lot of playing time as a true freshman but was still feeling his way around by and large. In 13 games he had nine tackles, 1.0 tackle for a loss, and did not record a sack. Behind Jackson and Johnson is senior tackle DeMarcus Hodge and freshman Armon Watts.
Hodge is a gap plug, coming in at 6-foot-1 and in the neighborhood of 340 pounds. A redshirt freshman, Watts (6-5, 295) has added significant weight to his frame after arriving on campus around 260 pounds. A year in the weight room has made a huge difference on paper, but only time will tell how that translates as a contributor on the two-deep.
Another defensive tackle everyone is waiting to see in action is incoming freshman Hjalte Froholdt. Froholdt was a 4-star recruit out of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. The Denmark native was listed last season at 6-foot-5, 290 pounds. Seeing him person during his senior season, he was a lean-athletic 290 pounds.
Before his senior season he reported a bench press max in the 325-pound range and a squat max at 575 pounds. Nearly a year later and after spending a summer in Fayetteville with strength coach Ben Herbert and this true freshman could contribute sooner rather than later for the Razorbacks. His last reported weight was up to a solid 311 pounds.
Ledbetter is another new Razorback that impressed during spring workouts. Listed at 6-foot-3, 271 pounds, he was dynamic as a pass-rushing option, earning second-team NJCAA All-America honors at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. Recruiting services ranked Ledbetter as the No. 1 strong-side defensive end in the nation after posting 144 career tackles and 22.5 career sacks as a JUCO.
The ringleader for the Hogs' defense is coordinator Robb Smith and defensive line coach Rory Segrest. The Arkansas front made a dramatic leap forward under Smith in his first season in Fayetteville, going from a team that allowed 178.4 rushing yards per game to 114.6. That translated to a jump in the national rankings from No. 78 to No. 12 in rushing defense, and from No. 11 all the way to No. 2 in the SEC.
What to watch for coming out of fall camp
Hodge was pushing Jackson for the starting nose tackle spot. If the battle continues up front that only means little distinction between the two when the other is getting an in-game breather.
Wise has had some knee troubles as well as some off-the-field complications. Tevin Beanum (6-4, 271) could be the recipient of a starting position and more playing time if Wise’s commitment to the game continues to waiver.
Key backups coming off injuries are Brandon Lewis (6-4, 273) and Mitchell Loewen (6-5, 276). Both had off-season surgeries but are expected to be fully healthy for fall camp. Their presence at end should push the starters harder and make the Razorbacks that much better.
Jake Hall, Karl Roesler and Daytrieon Dean, if he returns healthy from shoulder surgery, could see playing time early in the season to see how they may fit into the Hogs' rotation up front or if someone misses time due to injury.
Arkansas should be a deeper unit up front than it was last season. This unit still does not have that explosive playmaker Smith can count on game after game when it comes to recording that big sack or making the critical stop behind the line of scrimmage. However, the Razorbacks' defensive coordinator does have a lot of guys that could fit the bill, making this unit a fun one to watch due to a lot of promise but also a large unknown because it's still unproven and young as a whole. One thing helping the defensive front is an improving secondary that could help get coverage sacks in 2015.
— 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.