Since the spring of 2012, Arkansas fans, the coaching staff, and players within the program have been on a roller-coaster ride unmatched in college football. After Bobby Petrino took the Razorbacks to the Sugar Bowl in 2011 with an 11-win campaign, the Hogs have gone just 29-34 with current head coach Bret Bielema posting a 25-26 mark during his four seasons in Fayetteville. Bielema has dangled the next corner carrot over Razorback Nation the last two seasons, giving hope to that proverbial turn once again in 2017.
Arkansas notched two big wins in 2015, taking down then-No. 19 Ole Miss 53-52 in overtime and followed that up with a 31-14 road win over No. 9 LSU. After a 45-23 win over Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl, hope for the 2016 season was widespread among Razorback fans. Much like the previous campaign, Arkansas won two big games over ranked teams, Ole Miss and Florida, but suffered through four SEC blowout losses and then seemingly stayed in the locker room at halftime of the Belk Bowl after building a 24-0 lead over Virginia Tech only to go on to lose 35-24. All Arkansas fans now want to know what to expect from Bielema and the Hogs in 2017.
The offense is in good shape entering the spring with starting quarterback Austin Allen and running back Rawleigh Williams leading the way and four starters returning up front. Offensive coordinator Dan Enos will need to find playmakers in the passing game, however, as four of Arkansas’ top five targets from 2016 are gone.
On defense, change will be seen all over the field from personnel to coaches and even scheme. Robb Smith, the Razorbacks’ defensive coordinator the past three seasons, is now at Minnesota in the same role. Taking Smith’s place in Fayetteville is Paul Rhoads, defensive backs coach last season and Iowa State’s head coach from 2009-15. Rhoads is shifting Arkansas from a 4-3 base to a 3-4 in hopes of slowing down the many dual-threat quarterbacks in the SEC. Rhoads also will be replacing six key players from last year’s unit, five of those coming from the front seven.
5 Storylines to Watch During Arkansas’ Spring Practice
1. Implementing the 3-4 Defense
One of the weak points for the Razorbacks’ defense last year was at linebacker. Former coordinator Robb Smith had trouble fielding three and now Paul Rhoads is switching to a 3-4 alignment. A big loss at the position is the graduation of Brooks Ellis, while promising sophomore Dre Greenlaw will miss the spring because of foot surgery. That leaves several underclassmen learning to play the “Razor,” (inside linebacker) and the “Hog” (outside) positions on the go. Keep an eye on Randy Ramsey, Josh Harris, Dwayne Eugene, De’Jon Harris, Alexy-Jean Baptiste and Giovanni LaFrance to see if any of them distinguish themselves during the spring.
The other big deficiency is up front with ends JaMichael Winston, Jeremiah Ledbetter and Deatrich Wise Jr. and defensive tackle Taiwan Johnson each having exhausted their eligibility. Bijhon Jackson and McTelvin Agim will get the early work in at nose guard even though neither has the true heft to fill the middle in a 3-4, but their speed and raw strength should be assets.
2. Finding Playmakers in the Passing Game
Any college football team would be scrambling after losing four of their top five pass catchers. Arkansas said goodbye to team leader Drew Morgan and top tight end Jeremy Sprinkle along with Keon Hatcher and defense stretcher Dominique Reed. Jared Cornelius, a sure-handed receiver, and budding tight end Austin Cantrell will help carry the load until the next wave of reliable receivers can be found.
Arkansas planned ahead, signing a pair of junior college wide receivers in Jonathan Nance and Brandon Martin, a four-star prospect. Another 2017 signee that could make noise in the fall on the outside is Koilan Jackson. La’Michael Pettway and Deon Stewart are among the returnees that will have an opportunity to step up and claim a starting spot.
3. Shoring up the Offensive Line
One of the best surprises during the 2016 season was the play in the pocket by new starting quarterback Austin Allen. Allen led the SEC with 3,430 passing yards and was second in touchdowns with 25. But he also led the conference in interceptions (15) and was sacked the most (34). Some of the blame should fall to the offensive line, which was a work in progress after returning just two starters.
Headed into the 2017 season, the line is in better shape overall, although standout left tackle Dan Skipper is gone. Center Frank Ragnow is back and will anchor the unit, which really started to hit its stride when Johnny Gibson took over at right guard mid-way through the 2016 season. Redshirt sophomore Colton Jackson got a couple of starts at right tackle before giving way to Brian Wallace. If all goes well, expect Jackson to emerge as the starter at left tackle in place of Skipper at the end of spring practices. The rest of the spring will focus on rounding out the depth chart.
4. Fielding a Balanced Defense
During the 2015 season, Arkansas was one of the toughest units in the nation against the run, limiting teams to 116.5 rushing yards per game (12th), but the pass defense was porous (275.2 ypg) and was one of the worst (tied for 117th) in the FBS ranks. Last season, the Razorbacks flipped the script – improving against the pass (221.2 ypg, 58th), but slipping considerably (205.5 ypg, 94th) against the run.
During the spring Rhoads not only has to install a new defense but also has to get his front seven dedicated to stopping the run again. Seven defensive backs were signed in the 2017 recruiting class, including four-star prospects Chevin Calloway and Montaric Brown, to help bolster the secondary but no true defensive tackles were added, unless junior college transfer Melvin Johnson (6-5, 275) adds some weight to his frame.
5. Red Zone Offense
Even though Arkansas had the SEC leader in passing yards and the No. 3 rusher in Williams (1,360 yards, 12 TDs), the offense often stalled out in the red zone. The Razorbacks finished 100th in the nation in red zone efficiency, scoring 46 times (35 TDs, 11 FGs) on 58 attempts (79.3 percent) inside their opponent’s 20-yard line.
With the thought that the offensive line will improve, some of the red zone woes should go away. The Hogs also have recruited really well at the tight end position, providing Allen with larger targets like Cantrell (6-4, 269), Grayson Gunter (6-6, 232), Cheyenne O’Grady (6-4, 251), and Will Gragg (6-4, 254). Junior college transfer Brandon Martin is the tallest wide receiver (6-4, 215), but true freshman Kolian Jackson (6-3, 205) could prove to be a difference-maker when he arrives on campus this fall.
Pre-Spring Outlook for the Arkansas Razorbacks in the SEC
The last three seasons for Arkansas have essentially been the same going 7-6, 8-5, and 7-6 with some big wins, and losses, along the way. What will be different in 2017? For one, hopefully the play of the offensive line. The Razorbacks have a great one-two punch in the running game with Rawleigh Williams and Devwah Whaley. Sophomore all-purpose back T.J. Hammonds also could be an option for offensive coordinator Dan Enos, as he has the potential to break off a big play any time he touches the ball. The Hogs also boast the SEC’s top passer in Austin Allen, so if the line does its job and some new reliable receivers emerge, this offense could be quite dangerous in 2017.
The defense is the biggest question mark going into the 15 scheduled spring practices for the Hogs. The secondary should be an asset in 2017 with three starters back and an influx of talent coming in the fall. How quickly the front seven adapts to the new scheme and how well the defense stops the run are the true unknowns. New coordinator Paul Rhoads will have his hands full needing his unit to go from the basics to reacting instinctively by the Red-White Spring Game. If not, Arkansas certainly will be in for another roller-coaster ride in the fall.
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 runs his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @HogManInLA.