Arkansas Razorbacks Football: 8 Breakout Hogs to Watch in 2011
June, long known as the month of basking in the warm summer weather while taking in a baseball game at the ballpark for most sports fans, means much more than that to the rabid followers of Razorback Football.
It means that we're one month closer to tailgates on the Hill and "Calling the Hogs" for the first time in almost nine months.
And, after the Sugar Bowl left an unnaturally sour taste in the mouth of all those that pack Donald W. Reynolds stadium on Saturdays in Fayetteville, it's time to help the Razorback faithful move on and bring their attention to a new squad of Hogs that look ready to leave their own legacy on Frank Broyles Field.
These ballplayers may not be collecting preseason All-American awards by the dozen, but they each have the potential to be game-changers for Bobby Petrino's veteran-laden team.
8. Tramain Thomas
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Notable 2010 Stats: Started all 13 games and led team with four interceptions. Third on team with 83 total tackles
Why He'll Breakout in 2011: Of all the players on this list, Tramain Thomas is receiving the most accolades from the preseason pollsters. Thomas was selected as an All-SEC Second Team performer both by Phil Steele's preseason edition of college football awards and the 65th Annual Birmingham News SEC Football Preview.
So, given the accomplishments that Thomas has already ascertained-in addition to the preseason recognition-you must be asking yourself, how can he be considered a "breakout" player?
The reason is simple: Thomas, despite the preseason awards, is still being undervalued by the "powers that be" in college football.
Thomas is the epitome of a ball hawk, a safety who excelled in pass coverage (as shown through his four interceptions last season) and is equally adept in defending against the run (see his 83 tackles). This makes Thomas a legitimate All-American candidate in 2011, a much more worthy accolade than being All-SEC Second Team.
Despite the potential Thomas has for a dominant year roaming the secondary for the Razorbacks, Thomas is being overshadowed by a stellar duo of safeties at Alabama (Mark Barron and Robert Lester) when it comes to preseason awards and media attention.
No matter, the preseason hype will be settled on the field when the Hogs visit Tuscaloosa on Saturday, September 24th in the SEC opener for both schools. Although Thomas won't be going head-to-head with Barron and Lester, he will certainly have the opportunity to show that he deserved greater recognition than his Crimson Tide counterparts.
7. Zach Hocker
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Notable 2010 Stats: Appeared in all 13 games and led the team by hitting 16/19 FG Attempts. Made 52/52 PAT's.
Why He'll Breakout in 2011: Much like Tramain Thomas, Hocker garnered multiple All SEC-Second Team accolades from the aforementioned Phil Steele and Birmingham News preseason awards. However, unlike Thomas, he won't have the chance to go head-to-head with the player chosen as the consensus first-team placekicker (Georgia's Blair Walsh).
Even without the head-to-head match-up, Hocker's 2010 season illustrated just how valuable he proved to be to the Hogs' 10-3 season. He possesses both the accuracy (84 percent field goal percentage in 2010) and the leg strength (6-8 from 40-49 yards and 1-1 from 50-plus yards) to give the Hogs an advantage in the kicking department, no matter the opponent.
These statistics also speak to the the intangible factors that make a great kicker, an icy-cold demeanor in the face of immense pressure.
These attributes will prove to be quite valuable to Bobby Petrino and his Razorback squad during the weekly drama-filled nail-biters that are a staple of SEC football. When the clock begins to run down and the tension builds, Arkansas fans should feel confident in resting their hopes in the strong and steady leg of Zach Hocker.
6. Travis Swanson
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Notable 2010 Stats: Started all 13 games as a redshirt freshman for an offense that was the only one in Division I FBS to have a 3,000 yard passer, a 1,000 yard rusher and five 600 yard receivers.
Why He'll Breakout in 2011: Despite being one of only five sophomores to be on the 2011 Rimington Award Watch List (given to the best Division I FBS center), Swanson was largely disrespected by the preseason awards lists, only picking up an All-SEC Third-Team nod from Athlon Sports.
Although there are plenty of great centers that will be taking the field this fall in the SEC, very few (if any) have accomplished what Swanson has in only one season as a starter. Swanson was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team in 2010 after being an anchor for an offensive line that helped RB Knile Davis amass the fourth most rushing yards in one season in school history. In addition, Swanson played an integral part in allowing All-SEC QB Ryan Mallet to flourish in Bobby Petrino's pro-style offense.
And, with three starters to be replaced on the offensive line, including the Minnesota Viking's sixth-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft DeMarcus Love, the Razorbacks will rely heavily on Swanson to provide leadership and continuity.
If 2010 was any indication, Swanson looks primed and ready for an even more dominant year in the trenches.
5. Marquel Wade
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Position: Wide Receiver
Notable 2010 Stats: Played for Milford Academy in New Berlin, NJ. Caught 26 passes for 565 yards and six touchdowns.
Why He'll Breakout in 2011: With the bevy of All-American talent the Razorbacks already possess at the wide-receiver position entering 2011, very few expect the recently enrolled Marquel Wade to be much of an offensive force in his first season in Fayetteville.
However, even after being overshadowed by the incomparable trio of Greg Childs, Jarius Wright and Joe Adams, the Razorback coaching staff have high hopes that Wade will contribute significantly in 2011.
The main reason for this is that the Hogs' consistently line-up in four receiver sets, which leaves open the door for Wade to become that fourth receiver. He will face stiff competition from returner Cobi Hamilton, who had a fine season of his own by catching 32 passes for 630 yards and six touchdowns.
However, Wade's play on film lends credence to the notion that he can overtake Hamilton for the fourth receiving slot, mostly through his blazing speed and ability to gain yards after the catch.
While the eyes of Razorback fans will largely be fixed upon Arkansas' own "Big Three" in 2011, many may find themselves surprised by the quiet but steady production that Marquel Wade has the ability to contribute.
4. Eric Bennett
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Notable 2010 Stats: Played in 12 games, tallying 15 total tackles, including 1.0 for a loss.
Why He'll Breakout in 2011: With the aforementioned Tramain Thomas garnering the media hype, few expectations have been levied upon Thomas' counterpart in the Razorback secondary, Eric Bennett.
However, don't let statistics earned while playing sparingly during blowouts in the fourth quarter dictate Bennett's potential to contribute to the Hogs in 2011.
As a running back, wide receiver, cornerback and quarterback in high school, Bennett possesses versatility, athleticism and an overall feel for the game that is rarely seen by a football player at any level.
According to Razorback coaches, Bennett's supreme physical gifts are augmented by a great nose for the ball and ability to defend against both the run and the pass on an equally effective level.
With Thomas holding down the fort at strong safety, Bennett should have ample opportunities to utilize his excellent sideline-to-sideline speed to make plays all across the field. In addition, with three years of eligibility left to groom his prodigal talents, Razorback fans should be outright giddy about the prospect of Bennett roaming the back end of the Arkansas defense for 2011 and beyond.
3. Jerico Nelson
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Notable 2010 Stats: Started 12 games, ranked second on the team in total tackles with 87. Also collected 11 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks.
Why He'll Breakout in 2011: In the over-saturated world of college football preseason awards, it is nearly impossible for a key returner on a top-15 team to hide from some type of recognition.
That is, of course, unless your name is Jerico Nelson.
Despite ranking second the team in total tackles, third in tackles for a loss, and earning SEC Defensive Player of the Week after a monster performance in Arkansas' rivalry game against LSU, Nelson didn't receive one preseason All-SEC nod.
Of course, much of this is due to the quality and depth of the linebacker position in the SEC. However, this most likely derives from the fact that Nelson plays linebacker alongside preseason All-SEC First Team selection Jerry Franklin.
Still, Nelson deserves recognition of his own after posting one of the best overall seasons by a Razorback defender in 2010. Although undersized as a linebacker, Nelson utilizes his running-back type build to stay low enough to the ground to both get off of blocks and make tackles that players of a larger size couldn't make.
In addition, as illustrated by his 39-yard interception returned for a touchdown against Vanderbilt, Nelson possesses remarkable speed and athleticism.
With these attributes on his resume, expect Nelson to make a name for himself during his senior season. And, when 2011 is all said and done, chances are those same publications won't pass over Nelson again when it comes to choosing All-SEC performers.
2. Jason Peacock
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Position: Offensive Line
Notable 2010 Stats: Played the past two seasons at Citrus College in Azusa, CA.
Why He'll Breakout in 2011: Arkansas' potent offense in 2010 benefited greatly from having continuity and stability on the offensive line all season. But, with three starters gone, the Razorbacks' ability to have continued success on offense will largely be determined by how well newcomers like Jason Peacock step in and contribute.
Which, if Peacock's past accomplishments are any indication, another year of solid offensive line play should be expected by the Razorback faithful.
After collecting second-team All-Central Conference honors while playing for Citrus College (Azusa, CA) in 2010, Peacock is expected to step in and fill the void left by former All-SEC lineman DeMarcus Love.
Those pressure-packed expectations are bestowed upon Peacock because of his unique physical skills and versatility. At a behemoth 6'4" and 344 pounds, Peacock possesses the brute force and strength to dominate opposing defensive lineman at the line of scrimmage.
These traits are a prerequisite for any player wishing to start at the all-important left tackle position in the SEC, but when taking into consideration his size, it makes him all the more impenetrable as a blocker.
As impressive as his physical traits are, what dazzles coaches the most is that Peacock, even at such a gargantuan size, can play almost any position at the offensive line. If a guard were to get injured, Peacock could slide over without ruining the chemistry and stability of the offensive line as a whole.
As big a loss as DeMarcus Ware is for the Hogs both in terms of physical stature and play on the field, Razorback fans should rest easy knowing the size and skills that Jason Peacock brings to the table ensure a drop-off in the future isn't likely.
1. Ronnie Wingo Jr.
Ronnie Wingo Jr.
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Position: Running Back
Notable 2010 Stats: Appeared in all 13 games, starting five. Amassed 251 yards on 43 carries and one touchdown along with 27 receptions for 274 yards and four touchdowns.
Why He'll Breakout in 2011: As the 2010 season started, Arkansas found themselves in quite a quandary when it came to naming a starting running back. Knile Davis, Broderick Green, Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo Jr. had yet to separate themselves throughout spring practices and training camp.
Eventually, Knile Davis broke through and ran his way to not only the starting job, but to 1,322 rushing yards and first team All-SEC honors. With Davis back, the starting job is obviously in Davis' favor as the 2011 season starts.
But, despite the record-breaking season that Davis enjoyed in 2010, Bobby Petrino is looking to Ronnie Wingo Jr. to put an extra punch to an already-potent running attack.
The reason for this? Wingo is enormous (6'3" 227 lbs.) for running back standards, but is also arguably even quicker than Davis is. Rarely does a running back Wingo's size ever have game-breaking speed. But, by all accounts, that is exactly what the St. Louis, MO native brings to the offense.
Beyond his physicality and speed, Wingo also brings great versatility to the running back position, as shown through his 27 receptions and four receiving touchdowns in 2010. This gives new starting quarterback Tyler Wilson the ability to go to Wingo both on the ground and on check-downs when none of his receivers are open downfield.
In addition, successful running games, at any level of football, rarely rely on one running back to carry the entire load. The running back position is one of the most punishing positions in an already punishing sport, which puts a premium on having talented running backs in the backup role.
Very few teams will have a physical specimen like Wingo as a starter, much less a backup. All of this gives the Razorbacks comfort knowing that Wingo is fully capable of stepping into the starting role in the event of an injury to Knile Davis.
Wingo wasn't able to win the starting job in 2010, nor is it likely he will in 2011, but expect Wingo to amaze opposing defenses with his blend of physical size and athleticism.