The Bret Bielema era got off to a great start last weekend against a good Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns team. Bielema's ground attack was in full force and quarterback Brandon Allen showed his potential for the future, as the Arkansas Razorbacks won, 34-14, before 69,801 fans at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
This week, the Hogs host the Samford Bulldogs at their home away from home, War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock.
Arkansas has the edge in every aspect of the game. It should have no problem beating a Bulldogs squad that has lost its last three games versus FBS opponents by an average score of 43-8.
While it won't be near the test the Ragin' Cajuns provided, the Samford defense is no slouch. It ranked 29th in the FCS, allowing 335.6 yards per game. Keep an eye on Allen, who had a solid season opener against Louisiana, throwing for 230 yards on 15 of 22 attempts for three touchdowns and zero picks.
His confidence has to be soaring after his Game 1 performance. He completed just 42.9 percent of his passes in five appearances last year, but displayed his arm against Louisiana. Allen had 10 completions over 15 yards, including a beautiful 49-yard spiral to Javontee Herndon for a touchdown. More importantly, he put the ball where it needed to be, indicated by a 68.2 completion percentage.
The Samford secondary gave up 392 yards and three touchdowns to Georgia State's Ronnie Bell last week, so Allen has a chance to put up even bigger numbers in Game 2. If the Hogs start rolling, his backup, A.J. Derby, will come in and get some reps under his belt in case disaster struck and Allen got hurt.
But, that is just hypothetical, so no need to panic.
It's not only a chance for Derby to see action, but also for many more of the second-stringers. The most important being the offensive line.
The unit returned two starters from 2012 and remains a work in progress. It helps that one of the returners is All-American and Rimington Trophy candidate Travis Swanson at center, who Bielema went on record saying he could be the best he's ever coached.
Behind Swanson and senior left tackle David Hurd, the line is very young and inexperienced. Starting sophomores Grady Ollison and Mitch Smothers have bright futures, and left guard Brey Cook is coming into his own. They did a great job against Louisiana opening up holes, leading the way for 292 yards on the ground and two 100-yard rushers.
The very talented backups, who are the future anchors of Bielema's ground attack, were also a big part of that. Second-stringers on the O-line typically see much more playing time than backups at other positions. It's essential they get as many reps as possible before the brutal four-game stretch from Sept. 28-Oct. 19.
Samford offers an opportunity for highly touted freshmen Denver Kirkland and the mammoth 6'10" Dan Skipper, as well as junior center Luke Charpentier, to get quite a few reps. Kirkland, Koehler and Skipper were part of a tremendous set of offensive line recruits reeled in by Bielema in his first class. They are the future up front and have a chance to develop into one of the best units in the SEC.
The guys the line is blocking for, Jonathan Williams and true freshman Alex Collins, had the Ragin' Cajuns on their heels all day. Williams got the ball rolling, or running in this case, with 41 yards on six carries. He finished with an 8.4 yards-per-carry average on 18 rushes for 151 yards, including a dazzling touchdown run in which he started right then reversed field to sprint for a 75-yard touchdown.
Collins wasn't too bad himself.
The 5-star recruit from Florida made his debut by gaining 131 yards on 21 attempts, showing off his speed and ball-carrying vision. Both will get plenty of touches against a Bulldog unit that allowed 164.6 ypg on the ground against mainly FCS opponents. Like the other positions, it also gives other backs like Nate Holmes a chance to see more playing time.
Though Samford is undermanned against a vastly superior Razorbacks team, they have some guys Arkansas has to keep tabs on.
Running back Fabian Truss returned a kickoff 100 yards last week versus Georgia State. He has 2,774 yards for his career and 20 trips to the end zone. On top of that, he also has 1,755 kick-return yards and three touchdowns. He provides a test for Arkansas' linebacker unit that remains inexperienced.
The secondary will also have a test with receiving duo Chris Cephus and Kelsey Pope, who have a combined 15 career touchdowns.
Saturday should be a much easier win for Bielema and his Hogs. Look for him to establish the run game early again to open up the field for Allen. If Arkansas is anywhere near the level it played at last week, things should be already wrapped up by halftime, giving solid playing time for the backups.
After Samford, the team has one more tune-up against a down Southern Miss program followed by their first true test of the season against Rutgers before Texas A&M comes to town on Sept. 28. That starts one of the toughest stretches in all of college football, with the Hogs playing at Florida (Oct. 5), at home versus South Carolina (Oct. 12), then at Alabama on Oct. 19.
With that span of games coming soon, it would serve Arkansas well to get all aspects of its game smoothed. Things are looking up after an impressive win over the Ragin' Cajuns and Samford is another chance to improve in weaker areas in preparation for the SEC slate.