Arkansas Football: 5 Most Important Takeaways from September
The first month of the 2013-14 college football season passed just as quickly as it came. Already, the national scene and title contenders are beginning to unveil themselves.
Up in the Ozarks, the Arkansas Razorbacks finished their first month with a 3-2 record and, for the most part, have performed up to the expectations most had for the team in head coach Bret Bielema's first year at the helm of the program.
Surprisingly, the defense ranks in the upper half of the NCAA. The offense is looking more and more like what one would expect from a Bielema-coached team.
What are the biggest takeaways for the Hogs from the month of September?
Special Teams Are a Strength
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Special teams are a big part of the game and Arkansas has excelled in that aspect.
Senior kicker Zach Hocker has always had the leg to be one of the best in the country, but hasn't always shown the accuracy to merit consideration as one of college football's top kickers. History pointed to a possibly big last season for Hocker, and he's showing a big resurgence after a down junior year.
The senior has hit all seven of his attempts, tying him for first in the country in field-goal percentage. Hocker has a long of 53 yards this season and is 5-of-5 from 30 yards and beyond, including 3-of-3 on attempts of 40 or more yards.
Junior punter Sam Irwin-Hill, the ambidextrous punter from down under, is showing what made him such an intriguing prospect coming out of the JUCO ranks. He's averaging 42.7 yards per punt, which would place him 37th in the country.
However, the NCAA ranks punters based on a 3.6 punts-per-game average and Irwin-Hill currently averages 3.2. He's also downed six inside the opposition's 20-yard line.
There's room for improvement when defending kick returns, where Arkansas ranks 73rd, but overall special teams for the Hogs have been, well, pretty special.
Secondary Remains a Concern
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The Arkansas secondary was abysmal in 2012, giving up 285.8 yards per game through the air and ranking 113th in the NCAA. Though it has made improvements, concerns still remain.
In the first three games against lesser competition, the Hogs allowed only 140.0 passing yards. However, over the last two games against good teams in Rutgers and Texas A&M, the Razorbacks allowed 607 yards and five touchdowns.
The measuring stick through five games has to be greatly dependent on the last two performances against high-level programs.
From here on out, Arkansas' schedule is loaded with heavy hitters and the secondary hasn't responded to the rise in competition.
Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova carved the unit up for 346 yards. Despite holding Johnny Manziel to 261 yards, much of it can be attributed to the Aggies' top receiver, Mike Evans, being limited for most of the game due to a leg injury.
He finished with six catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns. Before he injured his leg, Evans had five receptions for 93 yards and both scores in the first half.
The secondary has slowly descended in total passing yards allowed after a fast start, currently sitting at 47th in the nation.
The last two weeks for the unit have to be a major concern for Bielema and defensive coordinator Chris Ash. With some prolific offenses ahead on the schedule, things need to get turned around in a hurry.
The Linebackers Will Be Fine
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Coming into the season, perhaps the biggest question mark for the Razorbacks on either side of the ball was the linebackers.
Bielema inherited no returning starters from last year's team and had an open battle for the three starting spots throughout the offseason. Eventually, the spots were filled by Austin Jones, Jarrett Lake and Braylon Mitchell.
While Jones has done his part, Lake and Mitchell have been playing beyond expectations.
Lake has been the standout among the group, leading the team with 38 total tackles. He is tied for 31st in the country with an average of 9.5 tackles per game and has been good in pass coverage as well, recording two pass breakups.
This unit hasn't been in the opposing team's backfield a lot, but Ash hasn't blitzed much either. The SEC schedule will test the group, but it has shown it's up to the challenge.
The linebackers are making strides and their performance through the first month provides a sense of comfort considering what a huge concern it was before the season.
Brandon Allen Is Evolving into a Weapon
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Based on how he performed when filling in for an injured Tyler Wilson in 2012, many questioned whether sophomore quarterback Brandon Allen had what it took to be a starter in the nation's best conference.
His accuracy was the main concern, and though 53.8 percent isn't a great number, Allen is becoming a competent pocket passer. He was below 50 percent against the Aggies, but was also coming off a shoulder injury that sidelined him the previous week at Rutgers.
Besides his completion percentage and the pick-six thrown in the third quarter, Allen had a great game versus Texas A&M. He posted 282 yards through the air for three touchdowns in rainy, mucky weather.
He showed poise in the pocket and led the Hogs on scoring drives almost every time they needed an answer. His 167.5 passing YPG aren't gaudy by any means, but a powerful run game has kept him from having to chuck the ball all over the field.
For the season, Allen has thrown eight touchdowns and three interceptions. His potential is obvious and he's slowly working toward fulfilling it.
He is beginning to turn that next corner and has been what you always want your starting quarterback to be: efficient.
The Run Game Is One of the Best in the SEC
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This rushing attack is one of the best the conference has to offer.
Freshman Alex Collins and sophomore Jonathan Williams are giving opposing defenses fits. The two have combined for 1,068 yards and six of the team's seven rushing touchdowns. They power an Arkansas rushing attack that ranks 21st in the country in YPG at 237.0 and second in the SEC.
Collins, who was ranked a 5-star recruit by 247Sports.com, is making a case for the conference's Freshman of the Year honors. Aside from his 63 yards at Rutgers, Collins has been nearly unstoppable, rushing for over 100 yards in four of his first five career games.
He's 16th in the nation with 119.4 YPG and etched his name in the record books by becoming the first back in SEC history to run for over 100 yards in his first three games.
And let's not forget Williams.
He is 34th nationally with 94.2 YPG on the ground and has three 100-yard games under his belt. If Collins wasn't on the roster, Williams' numbers would be much higher. He only carried the ball 10 times against the Aggies, but averaged 5.3 yards a pop.
In Bielema's scheme, the running game is crucial to the team's success. Arkansas is still a ways away from competing for conference titles, but the legs of Collins and Williams will keep them in most games.
You'd be hard-pressed to find a more talented duo—not only in the SEC, but in college football.