Arkansas enters the 2015 college football season with high expectations, coming off a 7-6 showing in 2014 that concluded with a 31-7 bowl win over old Southwest Conference rival Texas. The Razorbacks' offense should be the strength of the team with four offensive linemen returning, along with a pair of 1,100-yard rushers in Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, and a third-year starting quarterback in Brandon Allen.
What was a 7-6 record last season for the Hogs very easily could have been 10-3. Arkansas used an old school blend of tough-nosed defense and a punishing ground game to shorten the clock and wear down opponents. The Razorbacks finished the season ranked 11th out of 14 SEC teams with 2,444 total passing yards. The passing game ranked 10th in the conference in touchdown passes with 21 and tied Georgia for the fewest interceptions in SEC play with just six.
The troubles for the offense happened on those few times Arkansas was stuck in a third-and-long situation. The strength of last year’s passing attack was the tight ends, and will be again in 2015, but more production is needed out of the wide receivers.
Senior Keon Hatcher is the top returnee in terms of receptions (43), yards (558), and touchdown catches (six). Tight end and All-American candidate Hunter Henry was second on the team with 37 catches and 513 yards. Arkansas lost backup tight end AJ Derby to the NFL. Derby, a converted quarterback, was third on the team with 22 receptions for 303 yards with three scores. Derby also missed two games due to injury.
Arkansas cannot take that next step with its third-leading receiver barely producing 300 yards of offense.
Sophomore wideout Jared Cornelius has the potential to do great things in the Arkansas offense. He had 18 receptions for 212 yards with two scores but like all the other receivers never showed breakaway speed or the ability to win a game on a five-yard slant by taking it to the house.
Cody Hollister (13-137-1) and Drew Morgan (10-181-1) have been more possession receivers rather than fearsome targets that require more than one SEC defender to cover.
The receiving unit may receive a boost in 2015 from redshirt freshman JoJo Robinson, true freshman La’Michael Pettway, and junior college transfer Dominique Reed.
Robinson was a 4-star recruit out of Miami Northwestern. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound speedster showed flashes of brilliance during last season's fall camp, but various injuries and some off-the-field complications kept him on the sidelines as a redshirt. His speed and playmaking ability could be just what the Hogs' receiving corps needs.
Pettway (6-2, 190) is an incoming freshman who could contribute immediately. Time will tell if the Nashville, Ark., native is a chain-mover or a game-changer. The big addition to the 2015 recruiting class was Reed. Reed tore it up at Coffeyville (Kan.) C.C. last season, coming up with 61 receptions for 1,157 yards, and 19 touchdowns in 11 games.
Reed’s presence on the field fills two much-needed gaps, a legitimate speed burner who can stretch the field and help open more running lanes for the tailbacks while giving space for underneath routes and he is also a dream red-zone target. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds, and boasting 4.3 speed, the Camden, Ark., native could be the big piece of the puzzle that helps push the Hogs from pretender to contender in 2015.
Another key factor in the Razorback passing attack in 2015 is new offensive coordinator Dan Enos. While many of the Arkansas spring practices were closed to the public and media, word around the water cooler is Enos intends to throw the ball more and spread out the defense. The running backs are supposed to be featured in the passing game as well, something not utilized at all under former coordinator Jim Chaney.
While there are plenty of questions for Arkansas at wide receiver, the Razorbacks appear rather loaded at tight end. It all starts with Henry, but Arkansas, without question, also signed the best group of tight ends in the 2015 recruiting class, landing 4-star Will Gragg, underrated 3-star Austin Cantrell, and 4-star C.J. O’Grady.
And there's also junior tight end Jeremy Sprinkle, who appears to have the skill set but just hasn't been able to put it together on the field. Sprinkle (6-6, 243) has showed glimpses over the past two years but has not produced consistently. The White Hall, Ark., native had a really good spring which could mean the Hogs are in business spreading out linebackers and safeties with two tight ends that can have an impact both as a receiver and run-blocker.
Two other players that have a shot at making some noise are wide receivers Kendrick Edwards and Deon Stewart. Edwards (6-5, 212) caught just four balls last season as a true freshman, but he averaged 17.5 yards per reception, one of those going for a touchdown. Edwards is currently suspended from the team but could return if he fulfills the obligations laid out by Bielema.
Stewart has nothing to lose going into his freshman season. Often overlooked despite recording 49 receptions for 1,005 yards with 11 touchdowns during his senior year, the former Highland High School star has a lot of upside without the pressure of producing from the moment he steps foot on campus. Listed at 6-1, 165, and with 4.48 speed, Stewart could be the speedy receiver in the slot that makes enough plays here or there that add up to wins by season’s end.
— 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.