Arkansas Football: Razorbacks' Biggest Concerns Heading into the Offseason
The Arkansas Razorbacks are in for a long offseason. After finishing 2013 with a 3-9 record and no wins in the SEC for the first time since joining the conference in 1992, head coach Bret Bielema and his staff have a ton of work to do.
It's not just one or two things either that need improvements. There's numerous areas that the Hogs must make major strides in if they want to avoid another dreadful year.
While Bielema and the coaching staff are going to be putting their focus on recruiting leading up to National Signing Day, once it has passed, their focus will shift to preparing for the start of spring practices and what the Razorbacks have to get better at.
But, what are the biggest concerns heading into the offseason? Read on.
Bryan Heater is the featured columnist for the Arkansas Razorbacks football team. Follow him on Twitter @BHeaterRivals.
All recruit stats courtesy of 247Sports.
The most important position on the field is quarterback. A team's success greatly depends on the performance of the quarterback and if he isn't effective, it can be a challenge to win games.
That was the story for Arkansas in 2013.
Starter Brandon Allen was shaky all season and as a result, the offense had trouble sustaining drives, moving the ball down the field and scoring. Completing under 60 percent of your passes is not good, but under 50 is just unacceptable. Allen finished with a 49.6 completion percentage and 13 touchdowns to 10 interceptions.
If Arkansas is to have any shot next season of making a bowl game and turning around its fortunes, Bielema must get better play from under center. Whether that means Allen making the improvements needed to keep his job or 4-star incoming freshman Rafe Peavey taking over, the Razorbacks must find a quarterback who is going to be efficient, take care of the ball and make plays with his arm.
The quarterback battle will be the most interesting thing to watch this offseason.
Peavey has the ability to come in and take the job from Allen. He has a very good pocket presence and, maybe most importantly, is very accurate. Peavey finished his senior year with a completion percentage of 68.6, along with 16 touchdowns and four picks on 2,294 yards passing. Those aren't huge numbers, but that's because he also was a huge threat with his legs, running for another 1,557 yards and a remarkable 27 touchdowns.
Peavey should help push Allen to make improvements to his game, but don't be surprised at all if Peavey is under center to start 2014 at Auburn on Sept. 30.
The offense had a lot to do with the Razorbacks' bad record, but so did the defense.
There isn't just one position that is a concern this offseason, it's the whole defense. From the defensive line to the linebackers to the secondary, Bielema has to be concerned about how the defense got worse as the competition got better.
Taking a look into the stats, Arkansas struggled against the run and the pass equally. The Hogs ranked 72nd in the country in passing yards allowed per game at 235.0 and 78th in rushing YPG allowed at 178.4.
There's no doubt that they have to get more physical. Tackling was a big problem for the front, especially for a group of inexperienced linebackers. I've drilled this point home because it can't be stressed enough: if you can't tackle, then offenses are going to have a field day.
This offseason needs to be filled with tackle drills, tackle drills and more tackle drills. Because they couldn't tackle, opposing running backs turned what should have been losses or short gains into first downs and touchdowns. Life is hard in the SEC when something as simple as tackling is a problem and if it's not fixed, the rush defense is going to continue to struggle.
Better tackling comes with being more physical, something the secondary could use a lot of as well.
If you want to stop the big, physical wideouts in the SEC, you have to match their physicality. The Arkansas defensive backs gave way too much cushion for receivers at times, playing 10, even 15, yards off.
Even average receivers are going to have no problem working with all that room. The secondary can use this offseason to practice on playing up on receivers. The Hogs use a lot of man coverage packages, so they have to be good at playing bump and run without grabbing with their hands.
Overall, the defense just has to get more physical and make more plays.
There are some young players that really showed they can be anchors in the future, such as linebacker Brooks Ellis and defensive tackle Darius Philon. The Hogs also got some great news with defensive end Trey Flowers opting to return to school for his senior year, despite NFL.com's Chase Goodbread reporting he received a third-round grade for the 2014 NFL Draft.
Even with talent returning, there's still a ton of question marks. The whole defense is a concern at this point and this offseason will be crucial to fill holes and make major improvements across the board.
The receiving corps wasn't great last year and with just two players returning who had over 100 yards receiving and 10 catches, it is a big concern.
The top two targets coming back are tight end Hunter Henry and wideout Keon Hatcher. Henry had a marvelous freshman campaign, hauling in 28 balls for 409 yards and four touchdowns. He was the team's best deep-play threat, averaging a team-high 14.6 YPC.
Hatcher had a very quiet first half of the season, recording only 125 yards on 11 catches through the first eight games. He came out of his slumber in the last four, totaling 16 catches for 221 yards to finish the season with 346 yards and 27 catches.
Hatcher and Henry are the go-to guys heading into the offseason, but Arkansas is going to need guys to step up.
Two guys returning to keep an eye on this offseason are sophomore D'Arthur Cowan and freshman Eric Hawkins. Neither saw much action in 2013, but with holes to be filled, both have a chance to be the No. 2 and 3 receivers in 2014.
Bielema knows that he needs to add more play makers out wide and has three 3-star receivers on board in the 2014 recruiting class in Jared Cornelius, Cody Hollister and Corey McBride. You'd like for them to have some time to stand on the sideline and take in games, but because the Hogs are so thin at the position, they could be pushed into more significant roles.
There was a big issue with dropping passes, which didn't help Allen's completion percentage. It's another fundamental element the Razorbacks must get better at. When you have opportunities to make plays, you have to capitalize on them, especially in the SEC.
The running back position is set, but the quarterback and receivers are a long way off from making Arkansas' offense a legitimate threat. The concern though is whether Bielema can find wideouts to come in and make impacts from the get-go.
One of the most critical keys to success is taking care of the ball and the Razorbacks didn't do that in their forgetful year.
Arkansas was 111th in the FBS in turnover margin at -9 for the season, including tying for 79th in turnovers lost at 23. When you're a bad team, beating yourself by giving up the ball only furthers the struggles and frustration.
Allen was one of the main culprits, tossing 10 interceptions. However, he isn't the only one to blame, as the Razorbacks also had 12 fumbles lost.
There has to be an emphasis this offseason on not handing opponents golden opportunities to score. If a player gives it up in practice, then make him take a few laps. If he does it in a game, then let him get acquainted with the bench.
Players often respond when they're watching from the sideline and put it in their minds to protect the pigskin.
Creating turnovers is also crucial and Arkansas was even worse doing that, tying for 112th in the country in turnovers gained with 14. The defense failed to make plays in big moments all year and it's why the Hogs fell in close games.
Forcing only six fumbles all season has a lot to do with the recurring theme of being more physical. Arkansas defenders have to use more force and be stronger when tackling. That means putting their noses on the ball and wrapping up. In the trenches, the D-linemen and linebackers need to make sure running backs have a firm grip on the ball by poking at the ball and ripping through.
The Razorbacks also only had eight picks in 2013, which also goes back to getting more physical and playing up on receivers. Whether it's creating or avoiding them, turnovers are one of the main concerns in preparing for 2014.
Concerns are abound heading into the offseason, but the turnovers, quarterback, wideouts and defense are at the top of the list. There's nowhere to go but up for Bielema's Hogs and a bowl game is not out of the question. In the end though, returning to the postseason will greatly hinge on whether these concerns are fixed.
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