At 3 p.m. on Saturday, Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium will be filled with eager fans and the hogs will take the field for the first time under new head coach Bret Bielema. Athletic director Jeff Long made the home run hire that surprised everyone in the nation back in December, as he convinced the former Wisconsin coach to leave Big-10 country for the SEC. Bielema and his coaching staff will look to implement their coaching styles in order to get Arkansas back to national relevance.
This time last year, the Razorback were coming off a win over Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl, a top-five finish, and had national title aspirations. While those aspirations took a small hit when Bobby Petrino was fired as head coach, the Hogs’ season still looked promising. That all changed when the 8th ranked Razorbacks lost a heart-breaking game to the Sun Belt’s ULM, and spun into a disastrous 4-8 season.
While there might not be as much hype or high expectations for this year’s team, the excitement is still there. There are so many unanswered questions for Arkansas. With a brand new, big name coach and so many skill guys departing to the NFL, no one can say that they know how this year will turn out. Fortunately, as they learned last season, it’s not where you start, but where you finish.
Offensively, the Razorbacks will be under the leadership of redshirt sophomore quarterback, Brandon Allen. The Fayetteville native has completely taken over the starting job after Brandon Mitchell’s transfer to NC State, and has been drastically improving ever since. Allen has great mobility out of the pocket and an incredibly accurate arm. The first four out of conference games will be a great test and trial run for Allen to see if he’s ready for the big time.
Sophomore Jonathan Williams will be starting off at running back this season. William’s did actually make two starts last season, and
had 45 touches, so some much needed experience is there. Williams will be backed up by highly touted freshman Alex Collins and the speedster Nate Holmes. The enormous fullback and team captain Kiero Small will be parting defenses this year after sitting out last year with an injury. All of these guys will play critical roles for this team, in an effort to execute Bielema’s signature run-powered offense.
The receiving corps has taken a hit this offseason with Cobi Hamilton and Chris Gragg leaving for the NFL, the transfer of Mekale Mckay to Cincinatti, and the season-long injury to Demetrius Wilson. However, seniors Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon will be Allen’s main targets this season as they both have steady hands and good route running. Arkansas will have to see big play from others like sophomore Keon Hatcher, redshirt freshman Eric Hawkins, and freshman tight end Hunter Henry.
The Razorbacks’ defense has been mediocre at best the past couple of years and ranked at the bottom of the SEC. New defensive coordinator Chris Ash is looking to change the defense’s reputation for the better. Anchored by preseason 1st team All-SEC defensive end Chris Smith, as well as junior Trey Flowers, the defensive line looks very strong.
The linebacking corps is slim after the injuries to A.J. Turner and Otha Peters, but is seeing some great improvements under hard-working senior Jarrett Lake. Junior Braylon Mitchell along with Senior Austin Jones will have to hold their own as they round out the starting group. Look for juniors Martrell Spaight and Daunte Carr to get some significant playing time, along with true freshman Brooks Ellis.
Arkansas’ pass defense was absolutely terrible a last year, ranking near the bottom in all of the major categories. With no real change to the starting defensive backs, I don’t see how they can be anything but improved this year. Athletic Tevin Mitchel and sophomore Will Hines will look to lock down receivers at the corner positions, while experienced senior Eric Bennett and promising sophomore Rohan Gaines line up at both safety spots.
Beilema will have his hands full in his first year at Arkansas, with many unproven players and one of, if not the most difficult schedule in the country. The hogs take on Texas A&M in Fayetteville, play at Florida, have South Carolina at home, then go to Tuscaloosa to take on Alabama in consecutive weeks. If anything else, this year can be a learning experience for the players, but Bielema, who lead Wisconsin to three straight Rose Bowls, is expecting nothing less than a highly successful year.