3 Things We Learned About the Arkansas Razorbacks This Spring
Believe it or not, the start of the college football season is less than four months away. Programs have already wrapped up their spring practices, including the Arkansas Razorbacks, which held its annual Red-White spring game on April 26.
After a 3-9 record and the program's first winless season in SEC play since joining the conference in 1992, head coach Bret Bielema and the Hogs went into spring practices with a lot of concerns on both sides of the ball.
Overall, it was a very productive spring. Players got better, position battles were heated and several newcomers made big first impressions.
But what were the most important things we learned about the Razorbacks this spring? Here, we take a look at the three biggest things we learned about the 2014 version of Arkansas.
Brandon Allen Will Start at Quarterback
It's not something a lot of fans want to hear, but junior Brandon Allen is going to be the starter on Aug. 30 when the Hogs open the season at Auburn. Though Bielema hasn't officially named a starter, it became clear during the spring that Allen starting is inevitable.
It's not just about him having the most experience. Allen is the most ready quarterback and gives the Hogs their best chance to win.
People are quick to bash Allen after an overall bad first year starting in 2013. It's understandable considering he finished dead last among the 14 SEC starting quarterbacks in completion percentage (49.6) and threw just 13 touchdowns to 10 interceptions (tied for second most) for 1,552 yards (11th).
However, most forget about what helped contribute to his dismal year. That includes countless dropped passes, a lingering shoulder injury that affected him a lot of the season and the fact that it was just his first year starting in the nation's best conference on a team that was bad all around.
Toward the end of the year, he showed a lot of progress, completing 57 percent of his passes with five touchdowns, three interceptions and an average of 149.3 yards per game. In the final game at LSU, a game no one gave Arkansas a chance in, Allen almost led the Hogs to a huge upset, completing 19 of 29 (65.5 percent) attempts for 178 yards, two touchdowns and a pick.
He carried that momentum into spring practice, separating himself from the pack.
In the team's four scrimmages, including the Red-White game, Allen completed 68.8 percent (62-90) of his throws for eight touchdowns. The only real blemish were his six interceptions. He still tries to squeeze the ball into tight spaces at times, which gets him into trouble.
For the most part, though, he made good decisions and was very accurate. He also showed a nice zip on the ball and looked more comfortable in the pocket with his shoulder fully healed.
Bielema got just about as close to naming Allen the starter as you could after Arkansas' scrimmage on April 12 when talking to HawgSports.com's Trey Biddy (subscription required):
(Allen) is our number one quarterback. That kind of separated itself from the time we had our last game to the our first two weeks of practice. There isn't anybody in our program now that's at his level. Really trying to stress him and make him understand that. Got to get him to be uncomfortable. I want to really try to press him on.
His younger brother, Austin, was also very impressive this spring and connected on 11 of 17 (64.7 percent) of his passes for 139 yards, two touchdowns and two picks in the Red-White game. Highly touted freshman Rafe Peavey has a ton of talent, but Bielema didn't work him with the first team and he attempted just nine passes in the spring game.
Whether you like it or not, Allen is going to be the starter in the season opener. That doesn't mean he couldn't be unseated during the year if he continues to struggle, but for now, quit the griping and get behind him.
Defense Should Be Much Improved
When the 2013 season finally ended, the defensive statistics were not good. The Arkansas defense ranked 72nd in passing yards per game allowed (235.0), 78th in rushing YPG allowed (178.4) and 76th in total defense, allowing 413.4 YPG.
The Hogs didn't allow over 300 yards in the first three games against lesser competition, but they allowed over 300 yards in the final nine games, including over 400 seven times and over 500 four times. Even if the offense was great, playing that bad on defense isn't going to win games in the SEC.
Though the Razorbacks lost a few starters, including sack leader Chris Smith, this year's group has eight upperclassmen, and all 11 currently listed as starters either have been starters or played key roles last year.
The big problem with the defense was a lack of physicality and big plays. After defensive coordinator Chris Ash left to become the co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State, Bielema hired Tampa Bay Bucs linebackers coach Robb Smith to replace Ash on Feb. 8. The hire brought changes in Arkansas' defensive philosophy.
As Biddy of HawgSports.com (subscription required) pointed out, Smith "will focus on attacking the line of scrimmage where as last year there were more read concepts involved." Basically, you can expect the defense to be much more aggressive in 2014.
Under Smith, the Razorbacks are going to attack the line of scrimmage more frequently instead of sitting back, making reads and waiting for the play to come to them. Last year, the defensive backs gave a lot of cushion to receivers, but they will now be pressing wideouts more on the line of scrimmage.
You could already see the changes having positive effects on the defense this spring.
There were more disruptive plays made, and the energy level and passion displayed by the defense was contagious. They appeared to get the best of the offense in several different practices.
The D-line looked like the most solid unit on the defense during scrimmages. Defensive end Trey Flowers didn't play as a precaution, but Deatrich Wise stole the show on defense, racking up five sacks. He and Flowers are going to give the Hogs a legitimate pass rush off the outside this year.
Arkansas was bad against the run last season, but the Red defense held the White offense to minus-42 yards rushing as the D-line wreaked havoc, totaling nine sacks. Defensive tackle Darius Philon caused a lot of disruption too and regularly clogged up the middle with 2.0 tackles for loss and 1.0 sacks. He also showed off some speed by returning a fumble 19 yards for a score.
If true freshman Bijhon Jackson wins the starting job for the other tackle spot in the fall over DeMarcus Hodge, the Razorbacks will have a very athletic and physical D-line that could be dangerous in the pass rush and keep backs from getting so many big runs.
The depth at linebacker still remains an issue. However, the Hogs have four guys in Brooks Ellis, Braylon Mitchell, Otha Peters and Martrell Spaight who can make big contributions in 2014.
Last year, Arkansas didn't have one linebacker with starting experience coming into the season. It'll have a lot more experience this time around, which should make the unit better overall. Mitchell was second on the team with 77 tackles, but he could end up splitting a lot of time with Spaight in order to let Peters start in the middle and Ellis at the "Will" linebacker position.
Mitchell and Spaight are athletic and have the speed to play sideline to sideline. Ellis is a star in the making with great instincts and tackling form. Peters is very talented, but he missed a lot of last year with a broken arm suffered before the first game. Making those moves would give Arkansas a solid starting group of linebackers who are much better than 2013's version.
The secondary is also looking a lot better in this new defensive scheme that calls for them to do more press coverage. It has allowed the defensive backs to make plays on the ball, which was shown in the spring game where they picked off four passes and had five pass breakups.
Rohan Gaines, Will Hines, Tevin Mitchel and Alan Turner all have starting experience and should make the Hogs a lot tougher to throw the ball against in 2014.
Though the defense was mediocre last year, the change in philosophy under Smith has the unit being much more aggressive and confident. Now, it's up to them to continue to learn the new system and carry that aggression and confidence over into the '14 campaign.
Wide Receiver Will Be a Strength
As mentioned earlier, Allen struggled for a number of reasons, one being Arkansas' lack of playmakers at wide receiver. Once the season ended, it appeared that the Hogs would be in even more trouble at the position with wideout Keon Hatcher and tight end Hunter Henry being the only pass-catchers returning with over 10 catches or 100 yards.
Bielema signed four wideouts in the '14 class to try to help bolster the position. A couple of the newcomers made big impressions and some receivers already on the team stepped up to make what was a huge concern appear to be a possible strength in 2014.
The biggest concern with the unit was going to be depth. Behind Hatcher and Henry, the Razorbacks didn't have a single receiver who made an impact.
So, going into spring practices, one of the main focuses of the coaching staff was evaluating and finding receivers to step up and play key roles this season. It wasn't as difficult of a task as expected, as a good number of wideouts stepped up and showed they can make impacts this season.
Jared Cornelius and Cody Hollister were part of the '14 class and had great springs.
Hollister was a quietly recruited 3-star receiver out of Arizona Western College in the JUCO ranks. He was anything but quiet in spring practices, catching just about everything that was thrown in his vicinity. He's a possession receiver who should give the Hogs a viable threat in third-down situations as a sophomore this year. He led all wideouts in the spring game with 61 yards on three catches and a touchdown.
Cornelius showed he will make an instant impact in his freshman campaign. He made a number of eye-popping grabs during the spring and looked a lot like former standout receiver Joe Adams with his ability to use juke moves and shiftiness to gain yards after the catch. According to Biddy (subscription required), he's already locked down the starting job at the slot position.
The Hogs also have redshirt sophomore Eric Hawkins and junior D'Arthur Cowan, who didn't participate in spring practices due to academic issues. Hawkins has very good speed and hands. He can stretch defenses and should be a regular contributor.
He's listed behind starter Demetrius Wilson, a senior who missed last year after tearing his ACL. Wilson was one of team's top wideouts coming into 2013 and is going to be another key weapon out wide for Allen to toss the ball to.
Sophomore Drew Morgan also had a nice spring and caught four balls for 39 yards in the spring game. He's a speedy slot receiver who could contribute on third downs. Also expect redshirt freshman tight end Jeremy Sprinkle to be a key player in the passing game.
Don't get it wrong, Arkansas still needs a lot of these guys to carry over what they did in the spring to the actual season. But the position went from being a big concern to a big surprise and in a good way.
There are a lot more playmakers than anticipated. Allen should have an abundance of options to throw the ball to this fall.
Bryan Heater is the featured columnist for the Arkansas Razorbacks football team. Follow him on Twitter @BHeaterRivals.