Arkansas Football: Position Battle Tracker for 2014 Season
The Arkansas Razorbacks are in the midst of spring practice. To say that there's a lot of competition going on would be an understatement.
After one of the worst seasons in school history, head coach Bret Bielema and his staff are searching for answers to the laundry list of problems. Because 2013 was such a bad year, there are open battles this offseason for every position in the hope that players will step up and make 2014 much better.
Here we take a look at the five main position battles this offseason. A lot of the players expected to be right in the middle of those battles are incoming freshmen who will not arrive until August, so our look covers the entire offseason leading up to the opener at Auburn on Aug. 30.
With that said, it's time to go into the battle zone.
Middle Linebacker: Brooks Ellis vs. Otha Peters
One position battle that is flying under the radar is at middle linebacker where sophomore Brooks Ellis is competing with junior Otha Peters.
Though Ellis is listed as the starter on the new depth chart on HawgSports.com, Peters has a lot of talent and is going to give Ellis a run for his money.
Of the two, Peters is the more athletic player and has better speed. He was good enough to start his freshman year in 2012, but injuries have hampered his progression. Peters dealt with a hip injury last spring that prevented him from fully participating in drills and then suffered a broken arm before the season started, limiting him to appearances in just seven games.
He has very good instincts, reactive quickness and the speed to play sideline to sideline. He's a playmaker, and it's no secret that the Hogs desperately need playmakers at the position.
However, Ellis showed big potential in his first season last year. He has an advantage over Peters in the strength department and is more sound as a tackler.
According to Trey Biddy of HawgSports.com (subscription required), Peters has been very impressive thus far in spring practice. More importantly, he is healthy. But Ellis has momentum on his side after starting the last four games and finishing the season with 33 tackles and 2.0 tackles for loss.
As of now, the starting spot looks to be Ellis' to lose. He has a nose for the ball and is able to shed blockers. He also has great instincts and rarely misses tackles, something that plagued the Hogs all last year.
Even if Ellis wins the job, there's a good chance you could see Bielema move Peters to one of the outside spots because Arkansas is critically thin at linebacker and needs to put the best players on the field.
Without a doubt the most interesting and important position battle for the Razorbacks will be at quarterback. If you follow Arkansas, then you know about the struggles the Hogs had under center in 2013.
In his first year as the starter, Brandon Allen was a virtual disaster. His 49.6 completion percentage was the worst among SEC starting quarterbacks and six points behind Justin Worley of Tennessee, who was the next worst. He also had the worst efficiency rating (109.0) of any starting signal caller in the conference.
If you're not catching the point, Allen was bad.
In his defense, he did make strides, completing better than 55 percent of his attempts in each of his last three outings. That includes a very solid performance in the season finale at LSU in which he connected on 65.5 percent of his throws for 178 yards, two touchdowns and one pick.
Allen's poor year overall and his inability to pose a threat with his arm is what created this battle for the starting job in 2014. The biggest threat to unseat him is true freshman Rafe Peavey.
Though Peavey has never played a down at the college level, he has the skills and talent to step in and win the quarterback job. Like all newcomers, he is starting at the bottom of the depth chart, but Danny West of HawgSports.com said he is fully embracing the challenge (subscription required).
The Hogs need their starter to be accurate and make good decisions. Allen didn't do either of those with his ugly completion percentage and 10 interceptions to just 13 touchdowns.
Peavey finished his senior year at Bolivar High (Mo.) with a 68.6 completion percentage and, though that's against high school competition, he throws on target most of the time. As a junior in 2012, he connected on 62.5 percent of his attempts. Improving accuracy as you mature is a huge key in a quarterback's development.
Peavey made good decisions too, passing for 34 touchdowns to only seven interceptions in his last two years. A big reason why Peavey is accurate and makes sound judgement calls is because he has good pocket presence. He stands in the pocket, surveys the field and makes the throw to his best option.
Peavey also can do damage with his legs, which is another aspect Allen's game lacks. Not only did he pass for 2,294 and 16 touchdowns as a senior, he also ran for another 1,557 yards and an astonishing 27 scores.
When it comes down to the nitty gritty between the two quarterbacks, Allen has a lot more experience with a year of starting under his belt, which is big no matter how much he struggled.
He absolutely possesses the ability to lead this Arkansas team and made a lot of progress at the end of the season. Allen knows the system and has a much better relationship with the receiving corps. It's his job to lose in the end.
You can also throw into the mix Allen's younger brother, redshirt freshman Austin Allen, who has also performed well according to Biddy.
Third Option at Wide Receiver
Much like linebacker, Arkansas has a lot of question marks at the wide receiver position. Besides Keon Hatcher and tight end Hunter Henry, the Hogs return no pass catchers with more than 100 yards or even 10 receptions.
Hatcher looks to be the clear-cut No. 1 receiver. Demetrius Wilson returns after redshirting in 2013 due to tearing his ACL and missing his entire senior year. He should be the other starter out wide. But, behind Hatcher and Wilson, the Razorbacks need to find a third option who is reliable and can make a big impact.
Based on what has happened thus far in spring practice, 2-star JUCO recruit Cody Hollister is making his case to be that guy.
There seemed to be something that plagued every position last season for the Hogs. Dropped balls were that for the wideouts. There were countless passes that should have been easily caught, but instead were dropped, which didn't help Allen's completion percentage.
Hollister doesn't have that problem. He hauls in just about every pass thrown in his vicinity. Biddy reported that "even when the defensive backs have had good position, Hollister seemed to find a way to come away with the ball."
His ball skills and route running are also very good, so though he doesn't have blazing speed, he makes up for it with crisp, clean routes and great hands. At 6'4", his size also gives him a distinct advantage when going up for a ball over a defensive back.
The feeling is that Arkansas got a steal in Hollister. He has already played lower-level college football for a season after redshirting as a freshman and will have much more time to learn the offense by enrolling early and participating in spring practice.
As much as Hollister has impressed, when 4-star JoJo Robinson steps onto campus for fall practice he is expected to be an immediate impact player and the most solid new addition to the receiving corps.
He doesn't have optimal height, but he's a great athlete and can turn on the burners. Robinson has a lot of former Hog receiver Joe Adams in him. Like Adams, he is electric when he gets into space. He has the ability to change direction without losing a lot of speed, juke defenders and accelerate quickly.
His most important attribute is his ability to play the ball. Though Robinson isn't tall, he has a very good catch radius for a guy his size. Arkansas needs playmakers in a bad way and Robinson is definitely one.
The battle for that third spot is also going to include veterans D'Arthur Cowan, who will be a junior, and Eric Hawkins, who will be a redshirt sophomore. Both have experience, know the offense and are well versed on what it takes to play at the highest level of college football.
However, Cowan and Hawkins have made minimal impacts, combining for just seven catches for 58 yards last year.
The Razorbacks are going to be very inexperienced out wide in 2014. That means behind Hatcher and Wilson, at least one of these guys has to step up and be an impact player. If you had to put your money on one of them, Robinson would be the best bet. But, don't count out any of the other three, particularly Hollister, who is really showing his 2-star ranking was a fluke.
Arkansas lost defensive tackles Byran Jones and Robert Thomas, both of whom were starters in the middle at one point last year. With them gone, the Razorbacks are going to have an open competition for both starting spots.
The stellar play of emerging redshirt sophomore Darius Philon allowed him to move into the starting lineup last season. After redshirting his first year, Philon posted very impressive numbers as a freshman, racking up 46 tackles, 9.0 TFL and 3.0 sacks.
Unless something happens, Philon should be one of the starters. He has great technique and is sound against both the pass and run. Philon also is an exceptional pass rusher for an interior lineman. He has the potential to be a first team All-SEC performer and one of the better tackles the Hogs have had in some time.
While there's little doubt about one starter, the other defensive tackle spot is much more of a toss-up. Going off of the current depth chart, the other starter would be redshirt junior DeMarcus Hodge. He appeared in 11 games in 2013, recording 27 tackles, 2.5 TFL and one sack.
Hodge isn't going to get a lot of sacks, but he is a space eater and plays the run very well, something the defense as a whole didn't do well at all. He uses his 6'1", 343-pound frame and strength to plug up running lanes in the middle, allowing teammates to corral backs in the backfield or after a small gain.
What is going to make this a real battle to watch is when 2014 commit Bijhon Jackson arrives on campus for fall practices. A 4-star recruit, Jackson was dominant in high school and has a real chance at starting his freshman year.
Jackson has uncanny explosiveness and a first step that can leave O-linemen scrambling to keep him out of the backfield. His skills are advanced, including his hand quickness, motor and overall athleticism.
Arkansas was gashed on the ground all of 2013 and a big reason was that the D-linemen didn't have the motor and drive to keep attacking as the Razorbacks got further into games. Jackson's motor seems never to quit. He's not a guy you have to worry about taking plays off.
Unlike Hodge, Jackson is great against the run and the pass. He uses his hands, explosiveness and strength to maneuver past blockers and get to the quarterback on pass plays. On run plays, he is able to gain leverage to shed blockers and find the running back or use his big frame to clog up holes.
Redshirt sophomore Taiwan Johnson is listed as second string behind Hodge and also will compete for the starting spot. Johnson's odds at winning the job are slim, but with a good showing this offseason, you never know what could happen. He figures to be in the rotation regardless.
The battle in the spring will be between Hodge and Johnson before the real battle begins once Jackson arrives. The Razorbacks' D-line was overpowered at times and porous against the run. They need guys who are going to be more aggressive and close holes so backs won't get to the second level and gain big chunks of yardage.
There's a very good chance Hodge will be the starter to begin 2014 before being unseated by an uber-talented Jackson.
The most under-the-radar battle will be for the starting field goal kicker spot. The Hogs have a very difficult task replacing four-year starter Zach Hocker.
Kicking it out for the starting job will be junior John Henson and heralded 2014 commit Cole Hedlund.
Henson spent his first two years backing up Hocker, so he saw limited action, attempting just three field goals. Two of them came as a freshman during Hocker's struggles, but he quickly got reacquainted with the sideline.
He doesn't have the strongest leg and his accuracy is limited greatly by the distance between him and the uprights. Range is huge for a kicker and Henson doesn't have a ton of it, like Hocker did. The one attempt he had outside of 30 yards, he missed badly.
As a kicker, you have to be able to hit the longer attempts. Of course you're not going to hit them all, but you have to be consistent from over 30 yards out. Unless Henson can expand his range more, he will spend the rest of his career backing up kicking phenom Hedlund.
A first team All-American by several major publications, Hedlund was ranked the No. 2 kicker in the country for good reason.
From 2011-13, he connected on 84.8 percent (56-66) of his field goal attempts, which tells you all about his accuracy. Many of those attempts were from longer than 30 yards out. He was able to be accurate even from long distances.
Those long-distance kicks also showed off his leg strength. Hedlund hit field goals that even the better college kickers have trouble with, his longest coming from 57 yards. His leg strength and accuracy set him apart from others across the country, and it's what should set him apart from Henson.
It hurts to lose a guy who contributed as much as Hocker, but Bielema signed another kicker in Hedlund who has the ability to be another four-year starter for the Hogs. Still, don't write off Henson. He is going to do everything he can to fend off Hedlund for at least a year.
Bryan Heater is the featured columnist for the Arkansas Razorbacks football team. Follow him on Twitter @BHeaterRivals.
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