Razorback’s Football Season Preview
Hogs ready to turn corner in 2016?
Arkansas is entering the fourth year of the Bret Bielema regime, and from a personnel standpoint there are more reasons for optimism than concern among the Razorback faithful.
The schedule is brutal…but it is always brutal in the SEC’s Western Division. The Hogs may have the best home football schedule in Fayetteville history with Alabama, Ole Miss, Florida and LSU all heading to Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium over the span of six weeks in October and November. Combine that with road games at TCU, Auburn, Mississippi State and Missouri and a neutral site game against Texas A&M, and the Razorbacks will face five teams ranked in the two major preseason polls.
Led by seniors Deatrich Wise, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Taiwain Johnson and JaMichael Winston, Arkansas should have one of the best, deepest defensive lines in the conference. This year’s front has been built for speed with an emphasis of getting more pressure on the quarterback.
Senior Brooks Ellis and Dre Greenlaw return at linebacker. The numbers are much better this season after Ellis was forced to play every meaningful snap last season and Greenlaw was forced into action as a true freshman.
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema said he will be surprised if when looking back on the 2016 season if the secondary isn’t the most improved area on the team. Arkansas’ pass defense was dead last in the SEC in 2015, surrendering 275.2 yards per game through the air. Several experienced players return and are now coached by former seven-year Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads.
Offensively, the biggest concern for most Razorback fans is the offensive line. The Razorbacks are replacing three starters. Senior Dan Skipper has made the move from right tackle to left and junior Frank Ragnow has moved from right guard to center. Both players have played their new spots in the past, however. Texas graduate transfer Jake Raulerson has seized the right guard spot, and redshirt freshman Colton Jackson appears to be the future at right tackle. Sophomore Hjalte Froholdt, a defensive lineman in 2015, moved to left guard to start the spring and has started every practice there since.
Right up there with concerns on the offensive line is the unknown at quarterback with first-year starter Austin Allen. Allen, now a redshirt junior, has been the backup to his older brother the past two seasons. He is one of five quarterbacks who will either be a first-year starter or has been through a quarterback competition during the offseason.
The Hogs lost 1,500-yard rusher Alex Collins to the NFL Draft, but sophomore Rawleigh Williams returns from a broken neck (fully cleared), and four-star true freshman Devwah Whaley looks to have star power after being ranked the No. 1 running back prospect in Texas last year. If sixth-year senior Kody Walker can avoid injuries, he can make winning plays for the Hogs, as well. Four-star true freshman T.J. Hammonds is coming back from a meniscal tear, according to Bielema, but he should be able to help this season.
Arkansas returns five proven wide receivers, including four seniors. Drew Morgan was All-SEC last season after catching 10 touchdowns. Keon Hatcher and Cody Hollister each return from a broken foot, and Dominique Reed showed impressive big-play ability last season. Junior Jared Cornelius may be the team’s best all-around receiver.
There is uncertainty in the kicking game as the Hogs return sophomore Cole Hedlund for shorter field goals and extra points. Hedlund was inconsistent last season, and the field goal unit struggled to prevent blocked kicks. The long-ball kicker is senior Adam McFain. He had a hamstring injury last season, and the Hogs struggled getting the ball into the end zone on kickoffs. Punter Toby Baker is considered by some as a potential NFL prospect.