Arkansas Football: Razorbacks Biggest Problems to Address in the Offseason

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Arkansas Football: Razorbacks Biggest Problems to Address in the Offseason
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
Head coach Bret Bielema

After suffering another loss over the weekend, this time to Mississippi State, the Arkansas Razorbacks are now 0-7 in the SEC. With a trip to the LSU Tigers Friday, the Hogs seem destined to finish with the team's first winless season in the conference since moving into it in 1992, and their first eight-game losing streak in the history of the tradition-rich program.

It's safe to say that, though people knew this would be a rebuilding year, most did not expect it to be this bad in head coach Bret Bielema's first year as the head Hog.

Even if by some act of God, the Razorbacks pulled off an upset of epic proportions, there would still be a lot to address during the offseason. Arkansas needs to make some serious progress in a lot of areas, and that's putting it nicely.

Though there are a lot of things that need fixing, we'd be here all day if we tried to name all of them. So, instead here's a breakdown of the biggest problems that need to be addressed before the 2014 season kicks off.

 

Fundamentals

You'd think that this would be something in the breakdown of a high school team, but this is an article about Arkansas, a college team.

If you can't do the basic things like tackling, catching the ball and not committing turnovers, then don't expect to win football games at the highest level college football has to offer. 

Fundamentals have been a huge problem all year long, particularly tackling. The defense has been bad and a big reason for it has been the lack of guys wrapping up and them making arm tackles. A great example was Mississippi State freshman quarterback Damian Williams' run on the Bulldogs first play of overtime. 

The Hogs allowed him to scramble 25 yards while dodging wimpy tackle attempts to eventually set up for a game-sealing interception from the Bulldog defense. This is just one play out of the countless times this season Hog defenders have failed to make tackles to prevent big plays. It seems ridiculous that an SEC program can't even get down the proper tackling technique, but that's the reality of where the Razorbacks are at right now.

When you add to it the fact that the wideouts have dropped numerous easy catches and the offense tying for 86th in the country in turnovers lost with 21, it's a recipe for disaster.

During spring practices, Bielema and the coaching staff need to get back to the basics. If that means demonstrating how to wrap up and tackle a guy, then so be it. And as far as catching the ball and turning the ball over, you can simply bench players during games or if it's in practice, have them run like there was no tomorrow.

Bielema should take a lesson from the hit football movie "Remember the Titans," when coach Herman Boone addressed Petey Jones' fumbling problem.

"Petey, how many feet are in a mile? How many feet are in a mile?! 5, 280 feet! You pick this ball up and run every one 'em! You're killing me, Petey! You're killing me!"

 

Quarterback Play

Here's another area that if you don't get good play out of, it's going to be hard to win. Brandon Allen has struggled mightily for most of 2013, his first full season as the starter. 

Though he had his second straight game with a completion rate above 50 percent, his season average is still just 47.6 percent and his stats have been mediocre. For the year, he has recorded 11 touchdowns, nine picks, a mere 1,374 yards passing and just 6.0 yards per pass attempt.

He's been even worse in conference play, posting 986 yards with six touchdowns and eight interceptions, with an abysmal 44.9 completion percentage. He also has averaged just 5.33 YPA in SEC play.

Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports
Quarterback Brandon Allen

His job for 2014 is in no way guaranteed. The healthiest and most proficient way for Bielema to address this position during the offseason is to have an open battle for the starting nod. Allen needs to be pushed by guys behind him to make him better and early 4-star quarterback signee Rafe Peavey could very well upend him for the job.

Consider it a good thing that Arkansas has a quarterback recruit as highly regarded as Peavey coming in.

He's going to give Allen everything he has in order to be the starting signal caller of game one next year. Also expect Allen's younger brother Austin to be in the mix. We'll leave AJ Derby out of the discussion because if he's the guy who the Hogs have to go to then they are in big trouble.

An open competition makes every guy work harder and step up their game, and if they don't, then they'll make quick friends with the bench. Allen will do one of two things in a battle for the starting role. He will either make improvements in his decision making and mechanics, and show he has what it takes to lead the team or he will continue to slide, and watch as another guy replaces him.

Whatever the outcome may be, Bielema needs to let these guys battle throughout the spring, and even into fall practices, to make them better under center come time for the season opener.

 

Defense

The whole unit needs work, so why not lump them all together?

Both the secondary and linebacker positions have been very weak, but the front seven is where it all starts and the linebackers need a serious upgrade.

Entering the season, the Hogs returned no starters from 2012 and, though they held up well to begin, once the big boys came around they got exposed very quickly. The unit loses seniors Austin Jones and Jarrett Lake, who have been the best of the bunch, after Friday's game and two more at the conclusion of 2014, in Braylon Mitchell and Martrell Spaight

Freshman Brooks Ellis is primed to be a future star at middle linebacker and Bielema went on record saying he wished he had started him sooner. Sophomore Otha Peters also has a lot of potential, but he's been slowed by injuries this year. Sophomore A.J. Turner, who was fifth on the team in tackles as a freshman, has also showed promise and will be back in 2014 after redshirting this year with a wrist injury.

The Hogs need to bolster the position on the recruiting trail. As of now, they have two linebacker commits, in 3-stars Dwayne Eugene from Louisiana and Khalia Hackett from Georgia, who played safety in high school but was recruited to Arkansas as a linebacker. Sharieff Rhaheed, as 3-star from Florida, is also still high on Arkansas' list as well.

Linebackers coach Randy Shannon has a lot of work to do with this group, most notably tackling better and getting stronger and more physical.

In the secondary, Arkansas is very young with six underclassmen playing significant roles this season. Safety Eric Bennett is the only significant player gone after this season, which is the good news. The bad news is that the returners have had a rough go this year on a unit that ranks 77th nationally allowing 235.3 YPG through the air.

A big reason for that can be attributed to the youth, but the secondary is going to have to work on its coverages with the biggest being man coverage.

Opposing receivers have easily beaten Arkansas defenders in man coverage packages. They've been so bad at it that they are providing 10 to 15 yard cushions for opponents when lining up just to not let opponents to get behind them. That in turn has led to receivers getting open on slant and crossing routes underneath.

If Arkansas is going to make improvements next season in passing yards given up, the guys in the secondary are going to have to work on playing up on opposing wideouts and being more physical off the snap. 

The defensive line has been the strongest unit on the defense, but still has a lot of room for improvement.

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

Poor linebacker play has been a big contributor to the Hogs ranking 71st in the FBS in rushing YPG allowed (173.0), but the defensive line hasn't been great either. This offseason is going to provide a chance for guys to step up and impress the staff with Byran Jones, Chris Smith and Robert Thomas graduating.

Defensive end Trey Flowers should be back for his senior season, but even if he's not, Bielema has a lot of young talent. Redshirt freshman defensive tackle Darius Philon has had a very impressive year, totaling 41 tackles and 3.0 sacks. He is going to be an anchor inside in the years to come.

In fact, three of the backups on the D-line listed on the two-deep depth chart are redshirt freshman. Defensive end Brandon Lewis has contributed in just about every game and Deatrich Wise Jr. has a great pass rushing frame at 6'6", 265 pounds. He hasn't seen a ton of action behind Flowers, but performing well in the spring should help him see the field more as a sophomore. Sophomore defensive tackle Demarcus Hodge has also shown flashes backing up Thomas.

It really hurts that Arkansas, for the second year in a row, missed out on a top in-state prospect to Alabama in Springdale Har-Ber's Josh Frazier. However, it stings a little less with 4-star Bijhon Jackson coming. You can fully expect Jackson to push for a starting spot from day one, which should make everyone around him better.

The defense has a lot of work to do in all phases. There is talent, but going into the spring no one's job should be safe. Competition is good for a team and it makes guys work harder, plain and simple.

Overall, there are plenty of issues to be dealt with, but the defense as a whole, quarterback play and fundamentals have to be the top priorities for Bielema and the Razorbacks this offseason. It will be a long nine-month wait for next season after Friday, but those nine months are going to be critical to the Hogs moving forward into 2014.

For more information on the Arkansas Razorbacks football team, follow Bryan Heater @BHeaterRivals.

 

 

 

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