Arkansas Razorbacks: 10 Most Important Players for 2011
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Each year, Bobby Petrino and the Razorback coaching staff beseech their players to form a unified front to face the raucous crowds at Donald W. Reynolds Stadium and at hostile venues across the SEC. This truism can be said of all college teams, but it is much more poignant in the football-crazed South where the Razorbacks reside.
Yet, no matter how unified the players are throughout the season, those who play starting roles and are expected to be key contributors will always grab much of the glory if success is achieved, or have bestowed upon them the majority of the blame in the event of a crushing loss.
Yes, these 10 players hold the keys to the hope and dreams of Hog fans all across the Natural State and beyond. The amount of success (or lack thereof) that the Razorbacks achieve in 2011 will largely fall (fairly or unfairly) on these men's shoulders.
Hey, no pressure right?
10. Alvin Bailey
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In 2011, the Razorbacks will be replacing three starters on the offensive line, including All-SEC left tackle DeMarcus Love. Despite copious amounts of talent that exist at the skill positions, the Razorback faithful know that the offense will go only as far as a rebuilt offensive line will take them.
But, thankfully for the Hogs, they have at least one returner who is a proven commodity among the "Big Uglies."
In 2010, Alvin Bailey started all 13 games and was named to the FWAA Freshman All-America team and the SEC All-Freshman team. Quite an accomplishment for a player who sat out the entire 2009 season while redshirting.
It is because of Bailey that there is some hope that Arkansas can be nearly as proficient along the line as they were in 2010. With his monstrous frame, quick feet and great technique, offensive line coach Chris Klenakis has huge expectations for Bailey in 2011. Of course, for running back Knile Davis to even come close to his 2010 totals of 1,322 yards rushing, he'll be counting on the big fella from Broken Arrow, OK to be a leader on the line and give him room to run.
9. Isaac Madison
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Although the SEC is know for having hard-running stalwarts at the running back position (and this year won't be any different, with South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore and Albama's Trent Richardson in the mix), any successful SEC defense must be able to defend against the pass.
For the Arkansas Razorbacks, that's where Isaac Madison comes in.
Despite the presence of All-SEC secondary counterpart Tramain Thomas (we'll get to him), the Hogs will rely heavily on Madison to be adept in pass coverage. Most notably, the Razorbacks will likely line up Madison opposite their opponents' number one receiver.
Which makes Madison's contributions to the Razorback defense all the more vital.
Yet, despite the pressure that will be burdening Madison from game to game, he has illustrated that he possesses the requisite chops to come through when the Razorbacks needed him most.
Last season, in Arkansas' back-and-forth 31-24 victory at Georgia, Madison recorded a career-high seven tackles and a key pass breakup. In addition, he tallied five key tackles against the Hogs monumental 31-23 victory over LSU.
But, most importantly, Madison played well (for the most part) each big-time receiver he faced. And, for Arkansas to reach further heights in 2011, they'll need the Dallas, TX product to produce a senior year to remember.
8. Dennis Johnson
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Each team who wishes to stay among the upper-echelon of programs throughout the season needs players who can contribute in multiple ways. Luckily for the Hogs, they possess two such players, Joe Adams (we'll get to him) and the versatile Dennis Johnson.
Johnson heads into the 2011 season as the SEC's active leader for career kickoff return yards and total return yards with 2,014. In addition, Johnson is a bruising back who who can break the long run at any time on offense.
Most amazingly, Johnson compiled these great stats in a body of work that spans barely more than two seasons. Unfortunately for Johnson in 2010, he suffered a season-ending injury in the second game of the year against University of Louisiana-Monroe and was unable to contribute to the Razorbacks success.
in 2008 and 2009, Hog fans will remember just how explosive Johnson was. Johnson ended his freshman campaign in 2008 with 905 kick-return yards, a then-Razorback record. In 2009, Johnson ranked in the top-10 in the SEC both in yards per kick return (25.78) and yards of total offense per game (111.15). Johnson's big play ability in the kick return game was sorely missed by Arkansas as they struggled to find consistency throughout the rest of the season.
With Johnson back and healthy for 2011, look for the Hogs special teams' fortunes to improve by leaps and bounds. In addition, don't be surprised if you see Johnson spending considerable time in the Razorback backfield in 2011, taking some of the load off of star back Knile Davis.
In sum, Johnson is a threat in multiple phases of the game. In 2011, look for Johnson to regain the spotlight and play a key role in the Razorbacks' offense and special teams.
7. Joe Adams
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Joe Adams is an enormous part of what the Razorbacks do both on offense and on special teams.
Why? Well, only because Adams is one of the most versatile and most athletic receivers in the nation,
Adams is just as much a threat to break a game-breaking punt return as he is a game-breaking reception. Adams led the Hogs with 813 receiving yards in 2010, and also recorded a breathtaking, school-record 97-yard punt return for a touchdown against Ole Miss.
Adams is able to be so effective in so many ways because he owns unbelievable amounts of athleticism and speed. In addition, Adams is almost impossible to get to the ground, because he has a vast arsenal of moves that will leave defenders grasping for air.
His game-breaking speed is complimented beautifully with dependable route running and an uncanny ability to amass large amounts of yards after the catch. In 2011, expect Adams to give both special teams coaches and defensive coordinators nightmares before and after they play the Razorbacks.
6. Tramain Thomas
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In the week-in, week-out murderers row that are SEC offenses, every coach holds at a premium the ability to create turnovers. From the defensive line to the secondary, much of what defensive coordinators instill in their players is predicated upon their ability to strip the ball from skill position players, knock the ball loose from the quarterback, or beat out receivers on one-on-one jump balls to get an interception.
Which is why Bobby Petrino probably thanks the good Lord he has a player the caliber of Tramain Thomas.
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). In addition, Thomas was superb in blowing up running plays and living in the opponents' backfield, as his five tackles for a loss and four forced fumbles in 2010 shows. All in all, Thomas enters the 2011 season first among all current Razorbacks in forced fumbles and interceptions.
This makes Thomas a legitimate All-American candidate in 2011, an accolade that is conducive to his great talents.
In SEC land, defensive coordinators can never have too many guys that create turnovers. When a big play on defense is made for the Razorbacks in 2011, don't be surprised if it's No. 5 making the play.
5. Greg Childs
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If Greg Childs' contribution to the 2010 Razorback season could be summed up in one play, it certainly was a big one.
In the SEC opener on the road against Georgia, Arkansas coughed up a comfortable first half lead and found itself inside a newly resurgent Sanford Stadium crowd with the game tied late in the fourth quarter. In precarious moments such as these, the best players exhibit mental fortitude and instinct to counterbalance the pressure and tension of the moment.
Thankfully for the Razorback faithful, Greg Childs made the huge play necessary to show he was one of those players.
With Arkansas charging down the field in the final moments of the fourth quarter, All-SEC quarterback Ryan Mallet let go a pass to the sideline that was intended for Childs. Even with a Georgia defender attempting to wrestle position away from him, Childs was able to make the tough catch in traffic, throw off the defender, cut back, and then sprint to the endzone.
Touchdown. Arkansas wins.
Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, Childs couldn't be there when the Razorbacks needed him most: the end of the season. After suffering a season-ending injury in the eighth game of the year against Vanderbilt, Childs could do nothing but watch as his Hogs lost a heart-breaker to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl.
Before suffering a season-ending injury in a blowout win over Vanderbilt, Childs was on pass to amass over 75 catches and 1,000 yards receiving in 2010. Even in eight games of action, Childs was still able to haul in 46 catches for 659 yards and six touchdowns.
Arkansas, according to most college football experts, possesses the best wide receiving corp in the nation (as the top five in this list shows). And, without a doubt, Childs is the best among them. That is certainly saying something. What makes Childs so special are his solid, dependable hands and a superior ability to make tough catches in traffic. In addition, Childs has great stamina and strength, and the distinct ability to gain huge chunks of yardage after the catch.
Look for Childs (as long as he’s healthy) to go toe to toe with Alshon Jeffery in putting up the best numbers among SEC receivers. In addition, as long as Childs is on the field for the Razorbacks, look for the offense to roll right on through its defensive counterparts.
4. Jerry Franklin
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In a conference known for its ferocious defenses and fearsome hitters, any individual who can record the most tackles in a game in the SEC for an entire season is, to say the least, an impressive player.
In 2010, that accolade belonged to the Razorback's tackling machine, Jerry Franklin.
Franklin' monster 20-tackle performance couldn't have come at a better moment, on the road in a 38-31double-overtime slugfest against Mississippi State. Not only did that victory secure a huge victory against a top-tier SEC West opponent on the road, it kept the Razorbacks in the hunt for an at-large BCS berth.
A clutch, high-stakes performance to say the least.
But don't let one game fool you into thinking it was a fluke performance. Franklin's 2010 embodied consistency and tenacity at every level.
Franklin recorded 100 tackles on the season, leading the Hogs and ranking 10th in the SEC in 2010. Not only that, Franklin is the first Razorback ever to lead the team in tackles for three straight seasons.
Think about that.
Even as a 19-year-old freshman (he redshirted his first season) with no collegiate experience, he was still able to lead an SEC defense in tackles.
Franklin is on track to lead the Razorbacks in tackles for every season he played for Arkansas.
Quite an accomplishment if he were to achieve it.
In 2011, Franklin returns to anchor a defense which returns several key players (a few of which we've already identified and a few more upcoming) that many expect to improve upon a decent 2010 performance.
But, those expectations can never be fulfilled unless Franklin plays up to the already lofty standards he has set for himself.
It has been well documented in the past three seasons how uncomfortable Franklin has been in being publicly criticized by coaches as they try and toughen him up to be an emotional leader of the Razorbacks' defense. But, it seems as if the public prodding has already payed dividends. Franklin (at least from preliminary reports) has begun to shed his reserved personality for a more vocal leadership position. For the Razorback faithful, that is a welcomed change, one that should complement his ferocious play on the field.
If the Razorbacks' defense wants to reach its true potential in 2011, its on-the-field leader need only look to his performance in Starkville as a recipe for success.
3. Knile Davis
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American sports fans (and more specifically, college sports fans) love the "come out of nowhere" success stories. Movies like "Glory Road" and "Rudy" tell the story of teams and individuals who rise up from irrelevancy and thread themselves into the fabric of American society.
For the 2010 Arkansas Razorbacks, the most unlikeliest of heroes was the bruising, but unassuming, Knile Davis.
The junior from Missouri City, TX was buried in the running back depth chart for the Hogs, behind presumed starters Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo Jr. But, when Johnson went down with an injury in the second game of the year against Louisiana-Monroe, Davis took full advantage.
10 games later, Davis racked an impressive 1,322 rushing yards to lead all SEC running backs (and second in the entire conference to some guy named Cam Newton). In addition, his 101.7 rushing yards per game also ranked second in the SEC, and 16th in the entire nation. Yet, Davis' most impressive 2010 accomplishment was one in which he stood alone. In November, Davis was the only SEC player to average 100 yards per game on the ground in the season's final full month (November). Given the context of this accomplishment, the fact that it came during the most important games of the Razorback season, it gives evidence to support a claim for Davis' nickname:
But, what has Razorback fans most excited is what they're hearing from offseason camps leading into the 2011 season. According to well-placed sources in the program, Davis shocked players and coaches alike with how his rock-solid physique and blazing speed seemed even more poignant heading into this season.
Yet, all the talk and offseason speculation mean nothing without on-field results. And, if 2010 was any indication, sky-high expectations are what await Davis in the fall.
And, if the Razorbacks are to achieve similar (or even greater) success in 2011 with a new starting quarterback (oh you know we'll get to him!), the offense will rely heavily on Davis to pick up the slack and slash and dash defenses like it was 2010.
Yet, unfortunately for Davis, he won't be coming out of nowhere this time.
2. Jake Bequette
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Some people may look at this spot and wonder. Really, defensive end as the second most important player for the Razorbacks in 2011? But, those that consider themselves football junkies know the rule that permeates ever defensive philosophy in football.
Defensive success is predicated upon getting to the quarterback.
For the 2011 Razorbacks, their ability to uphold that statement will rest largely on its most talented and unblockable pass-rusher.
In 2010, Bequette earned All-SEC second-team honors while accumulating 32 tackles, including 8.5 for loss and a career-high seven sacks. Bequette's superb all-around performance this past season has led to many in Fayetteville to tab him as the cornerstone of a defense that has the potential ability to one of the best the Natural State has seen in some time.
One of Bequette's most impressive feats in 2010 was his ability to consistently put pressure on the quarterback week in and week out.
For a four game span, starting with the ULM game and ending with the Texas A&M game, Bequette recorded a sack in each contest. This speaks to his great motor and pass rushing skills, two attributes that are a necessity for any great defensive end.
Yet, as successful as Bequette's Hog career has already been, it is what his presence to the 2011 Arkansas squad that has him this high on the list.
In the SEC this season, so many of the conference's offenses are balanced and have excellent playmakers at all positions of the field. Schools like LSU, Alabama, Mississippi State and Auburn (squads that most assume will provide the greatest challenges to Arkansas winning the Western Division) all possess at least one great wide receiver and one solid running running back.
What does this mean for defensive ends like Bequette?
Their ability to stop the flow of the offense at its genesis is paramount. That means, in simpler terms, sacking/pressuring the quarterback, or stopping run plays in the backfield.
In 2011, Bequette's ability to disrupt the rhythm of opposing offenses will be a barometer for how effective the Razorback defense will be in creating three-and-outs and inducing turnovers.
Because, as we know, rushing the quarterback is king. Especially in SEC country.
1. Tyler Wilson
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And, ladies and gentlemen, you knew it was coming. He plays the most important position for a team that is replacing a 6'7", 7,000 yard, 60 touchdown passer. Who else but the Greenwood product with the aw-shucks personality would top this list?
Yes, if there is one individual who will be the most important contributor to the success (or lack thereof) of the 2011 Arkansas Razorbacks, his name is the much-hyped Tyler Wilson.
In multiple other articles about the Razorbacks, I have gone in-depth about the all-important role that Wilson will play for Bobby Petrino's squad.
But, just to change things up for the sake of fresh debate, let's touch on some points that haven't been repeated on blogs time and time again.
First, what type of numbers will Wilson have to put up for this offense to flourish? Can the Razorbacks get by with Wilson "managing the game" by throwing only 15-20 times a game, if running backs Knile Davis, Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo Jr. can gain roughly 200 yards a game combined? Or, will Wilson be allowed to throw downfield to his plethora of playmakers at receiver and put up 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns like his predecessor?
Or, more importantly, can he?
The answer to the latter is one that I think most Razorback fans will enjoy hearing, and that is yes. In the two games in which Wilson saw significant action in 2010 (for three quarters against Auburn and most of the second half against Ole Miss), Wilson played extremely well. If it weren't for two misguided throws in the fourth quarter on the Plains, Wilson couldn't ask for a finer body of work heading into the 2011 season. As long as Wilson can play close to expectations in 2011, Razorback fans should expect a strong level of continuity from the Ryan Mallett era to the Tyler Wilson era.
The second point is in regards to something more immediate and less talked about. Some devoted Arkansas fans have rightfully pointed out to me in comment sections that Bobby Petrino has yet to commit to Tyler Wilson as his starter for the 2011 season. Although this development has been nuanced and not gained much media attention, it does raise some eyebrows, given the fact that Petrino was ready to commit to Mallett when he transferred to Arkansas from Michigan after the 2007 season. It also raises many questions. Has Wilson been less impressive than most of the Razorback faithful believe? Or, are backups Brandon Mitchell (who some have compared to a less-polished Cam Newton) and incoming freshman Brandon Allen (the hometown boy who led Fayetteville High School to the Arkansas State Championship game in 2010) one solid training camp away from wrestling the starting job from Wilson?
According to a coach on the staff, those questions seem to have little validity. Most believe that Petrino has yet to name Wilson the starter just to keep the pressure on him to perform in camp and not get complacent. However, it still does leave open the possibility that Wilson still needs to improve himself in the coaches eyes before he earns the right to lead the Razorbacks on the field in the opener on September 3rd against Missouri State.
But, even with rumors swirling, there is little doubt that Tyler Wilson's performance in 2011 will more than likely hold the key to Arkansas returning to the ranks of the BCS elite, and beyond. Even with potential All-Americans scattered at every skill position, it will be the right arm of Wilson that will be watched and analyzed like few others have been in the Bobby Petrino era.
But, if the Razorbacks want to earn their way back to New Orleans in January (and produce a different result), they'll need their most important player leading the way.