When Bret Bielema took over for John L Smith in December 2012, it was no trade secret that he intended to transfer his Wisconsin system to Fayetteville. The problem was, as a thousand fired coaches have said before him, he didn’t have the pieces in place to run it effectively in the nightmarish SEC West. After winning the first 3 games against ‘exhibition’ teams, the Razorbacks struggled the rest of the way, losing their final 9 games, including a dreadful 3-game streak where the lost by a combined score of 134-17. Instead of folding though, the team sucked it up and fought hard down the stretch, playing competitively over the final 4 games. Bielema played a lot of young guys, who responded with good performances, which bodes well for the future, but it’s been a steep learning curve.
The offense Bielema wants to instal here is a power-running attack offset by a measured passing game that revolves around play-action. The Razorbacks certainly got the running attack down, as the combination of freshman Alex Collins and sophomore Jonathan Williams, who combined for 1926 yards and 8 TDs. The offensive line was pretty good, despite some lineup changes, paving the way for the running attack and allowing just 8 sacks. The biggest concern was at quarterback, where Brandon Allen couldn’t provide the conservative passing to complement the running game. He passed for 1552 yards and 13 TDs, while also throwing 10 interceptions. The receivers were pretty good but didn’t get the service to produce good numbers. Javontee Herndon and Keon Hatcher combined for just 58 receptions. Freshman tight end Hunter Henry has a bright future. He caught 28 passes for 409 yards and 4 scores.
The biggest concern for this season is sorting out the passing game. Neither Allen nor JUCO AJ Derby has shown they are the answer, although a year can make a big difference. Keep an eye on true freshman Rafe Peavey, a pocket passer who can make plays with his legs when needed. If nothing else, he should give the others a push in camp. Collins and Williams will be back to keep the running game ticking over, but fullback Kiero Small will be missed. The offensive line loses 2 starters. David Hurd was a 2-year starter at left tackle, while center Travis Swanson has started since his freshman year and has been voted 2nd team all-SEC the last 2 years. Austin Beck and JUCO Sebastian Tretola will battle to take over for Hurd, but don’t be surprised if freshman Brian Randall pushes hard for the starting job. Luke Charpentier has done a fine job backing up Swanson, and should take over for his senior year, but the young bucks will get a shot too. The rest of the line shouldn’t look too different to last season’s end-of-year unit, but there is good depth now, and competition should be fierce. Receiver could be a concern with 3 seniors gone, including Herndon. Hatcher will take over the lead role, but good-sized JUCO Cody Hollister will be expected to contribute straight away. Henry will lead a good bunch of young tight ends.
The defense struggled last season, despite the efforts of a decent defensive line. Second team all-conference pick Chris Smith and fellow defensive end Trey Flowers spearheaded a pass rush that netted 28 sacks. Tackles Robert Thomas and Darius Philon (injury replacement) combined for 6.5 sacks, while Byran Jones did his best to clog the middle. Jarrett Lake started at both the weakside and middle linebacker spots last season and did okay with 77 tackles, but he isn’t built for the middle and there was too much change at the other spots. The secondary was a major problem last season, allowing 235 yards per game and 25 TDs to just 8 interceptions. How would they have fared with a lesser pass rush? Strong safety Alan Turner had a decent year though, leading the team with 97 tackles and he also had a couple of interceptions.
The good news is, the majority of the defense returns this season. The bad news is, 3 starters on the defensive line aren’t among them. However, Trey Flowers is coming back for his senior year after mulling over early departure, and that’s a big plus. Also back is Philon, who started the last 6 games in the absence of injured Thomas, and he has the look of a star. Smith and Jones are both multi-year starters and will be sorely missed. Sophomores Brandon Lewis and Deatrich Wise will duke it out to replace Smith at one end, while massive junior DeMarcus Hodge should be an effective plug in the middle. At linebacker, Lake and Austin Jones are gone, but there should be enough depth to see the Razorbacks through. Brooks Ellis started the last 4 games in the middle as a freshman, and played well enough to suggest he may stay there, but Otha Peters may win the job back, a year removed from breaking his arm . Braylon Mitchell started at both outside spots, but will need to settle on one to flourish. The troubled secondary loses only free safety Eric Bennett. Tevin Mitchell will man one corner again, but a choice must be made between Will Hines (original starter), Carroll Washington and Jared Collins, all of whom started on the other side and showed flashes. Turner will return to his safety spot.
Having a good kicker is always a boon for a struggling team (or any team), and Zack Hocker only missed 2 of his 15 attempts on the year. He missed a couple of shorter kicks, but nailed 3 from over 51 yards. He was also excellent on kickoffs. Punter Sam Irwin-Hill had a 44.3 gross, and dropped 20 punts in the opponents redzone. Korliss Marshall and Hatcher did their best on kick returns, but apart from an 87-yard effort by Marshall, they were mediocre. It was the same story for Herndon on punt returns. Both coverage units were a concern. Dan Skipper deserves a nod for blocking 3 kicks.
Everybody is back in 2014 except Herndon and Hocker. Herndon will be a bigger loss on offense than special teams, and the Razorbacks should be able to find a capable replacement. Hocker, on the other hand, will be missed. He’s broken a number of Arkansas records in 4-year career as placekicker, and has been accurate throughout. He even chipped in at punter last season and did well. Adam McFain or John Henson will endeavor to replace him. Henson has some experience, kicking an extra point and 2 field goals in 2012, and backed up Hocker last season. With so many other questions on the squad, the special teams cannot afford to be a headache in 2014.
Bielema showed last season that he can keep his team together, even under trying circumstances, and that will stand in his favor going into the season. However, the schedule is tough again this year, and while the team may improve, they may not see it on the field. The big questions are quarterback and tightening up the defense, and they need to be answered quickly with an opening date at Auburn. How will the Razorbacks fare in 2014? That is a tough call to predict so early, but it could be 3 wins again, or it could be 7. A 5-7 finish would be a nice step in the right direction.
Tags: Adam McFain AJ Derby Alan Turner Alex Collins Arkansas Razorbacks Brandon Allen Brandon Lewis Braylon Mitchell Bret Bielema Brooks Ellis Carroll Washington Cody Hollister Dan Skipper Darius Philon Deatrich Wise DeMarcus Hodge Hunter Henry Jared Collins John Henson Jonathan Williams Keon Hatcher Luke Charpentier Otha Peters Rafe Peavey Sam Irwin-Hill SEC Football Trey Flowers Will Hines