Coaching Staff and Direction
No legitimate Arkansas preview can start without understanding the Razorbacks’ coaching situation and overall purpose. Despite 2013 resulting in the school’s worst winning percentage in sixty-one years, second year HC Brett Bielema is expected to make a number of stay-the-course instead of adapt-to-win decisions. The Long and short of it is that if Arkansas wants to change coaches, Arkansas would owe Bielema a buyout $12.8 million through the 2015 season and a mere $9.6 million if terminated in 2016. Bielema’s contract virtually assures him four full seasons to build the Razorback program as he sees fit, regardless of some booster pressure or heavy fan clamor.
Under Bielema, the offensive staff maintains continuity while the defense gets a much-needed jolt, albeit at the price of change once again. OC Jim Chaney and OL coach Sam Pittman return for Arkansas while Pittman does so despite an off-season play for his services from Alabama and Nick Saban. DC Chris Ash bolted for the same position at Ohio State which resulted in under-employed linebacker’s coach Randy Shannon’s move to assistant head coach and the hiring of former Rutgers DC and Tampa Bay linebackers coach Robb Smith as Arkansas’ new defensive coordinator.
Although winning is the ultimate goal, do not expect less-than-ready talent to play over experience or expect young, but ready, talent to play excessively to compensate for team weaknesses. Bielema’s job security propels him to build for the future.
Heading into August camps, Brandon Allen will be the Hogs’ number one quarterback with Brandon’s brother, Austin Allen, a red-shirt sophomore, and early-enrollee Rafe Peavey backing up Brandon Allen, at least on paper. Both ineffective QB starter A.J. Derby and Damon “Duwop” Mitchell, Jr., were forced to change positions midway through spring practice, moving to tight end and wide receiver respectively.
However, Bielema has said that A.J. Derby will be getting snaps at quarterback in training camp. If the overall philosophy Bielema’s demonstrated so far holds, Derby is the front runner for a backup quarterback position in the event that Brandon Allen is hurt early in the season. Why? He’s had longer with the system. He has the most game experience of the backup quarterbacks. Throwing Austin Allen or Rafe Peavey into a game with either Auburn, Northern Illinios, or Texas Tech has risks, but the risks can cause more problems on down the road with a rattled young quarterback. Tyler Wilson’s off-the-bench record-setting performance against Auburn in 2010 shows that new quarterbacks can have success, but the coaches aren’t dealing with certainties here. They see things in terms of “the best chance to win.” If A.J. Derby is seen as the one most likely not to make the mistakes which are critical to losing games, he’ll get the nod for an early Brandon Allen injury.
The biggest offensive question going into 2014 will be whether the Hogs can mount any effective passing game to support a run-oriented game. Brandon Allen’s performance of 5-11 for 21 yards and 2 interceptions in the first half of the spring Red-White Game against Arkansas’ second team defense will stay with him until he proves otherwise next season, despite the fact that his worst game performances in 2013 were more productive. Younger brother, Austin Allen against the first team defense was 8-14 for 94 yards and two interceptions while Rafe Peavey was 4-9 for 42 yards with no interceptions.
The expectations are that the system should be familiar to Brandon Allen, that he’s had time to work with his receivers, that his injuries are healed, etc. Whether the reasons for Brandon’s performance at the spring game were that Bielema didn’t want to give Auburn anything to work on, or that the defense knew what was coming, or that the coaches were evaluating players, Brandon Allen leaves most Razorback fans skittish about 2014, particularly since neither A. Allen nor Peavey are ready for the SEC opener as his first game, first start, and first road game against Auburn.
The running backs are the most talented and deep position on the 2014 Razorback squad. Soph. Alex Collins returns having ranked 7th in total rushing yards in the SEC with 1,026 net yards, averaging 85.5 yards per game, while Jr. Jonathan Williams plowed for another 900 net yards to rank 11th among SEC backs. However, against LSU in the Hogs’ final game of 2013, Korliss Marshall electrified Arkansas fans with 3 carries for 45 yards. He continued to impress in the Red-White Game bursting through for 99 yards on 6 carries. While Williams and Collins have become tough, between-the-tackles runners with breakaway speed like Darren McFadden, Soph. Korliss Marshall clearly adds extra step quickness and unexpected speed that ruins cut-off angles like Felix Jones.
Jr. Kody Walker will get touches in short yardage and goal line situations while Sr. Patrick Arinze and RFr. Chris Jones are expected to compete for time at fullback.
If there’s any surprise to be had from the running backs, it will be their utilization in the passing game. Last season Collins and Williams had only 63 and 72 yards receiving on 18 catches. However, turn back the clock to 2012, and Jonathan Williams is capable of more, having 208 yards on 8 catches with two long catch-and-runs of 70+ yards.
It’s difficult to know what to expect from Arkansas’ wide receiving corps in 2014. The players show promise and even some experience but little else. The most prolific returning receiver is Keon Hatcher who had only 346 yards on 27 catches while playing 10 games in 2013. Of the other returning receivers, Eric Hawkins had the second most with 32 yards in 9 games played but topped that total with one catch of 45 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. D’Arthur Cowan, who was expected to contribute this season, is no longer with the team reportedly for academic reasons. Yet, it’s not all gloom for the Hogs at wideout.
Demetrius Wilson returns after being held out of spring game. Wilson was expected to do good things in 2013 before he tore an ACL in training camp and red-shirted last year. Soph. Drew Morgan (10 gms.) and repositioned Damon Mitchell (from QB, RFr.) caught passes in the Red-White Game. JUCO transfer So. Cody Hollister had the best effort of any receiver in the spring game with 61 yards on 3 catches while other newcomer Jared Cornelius pulled in two catches for 19 yards. Wilson, Hollister and Cornelius have the potential to revamp Arkansas’ wide receivers, and hopefully they’ll get their chance.
Bret Bielema’s system features tight ends, and this group is as deep as any position on the team. The leader, 6’6” Soph. Hunter Henry, returns having garnered multiple post-season freshman All-American and SEC honors. Both Jr. 6’4” Mitchell Loewen and 6’6”So. Jeremy Sprinkle saw action in 12 games last season. The position is even deeper still with repositioned QB 6’5” A.J. Derby and 6’6” Alex Voelzke. With a target on Hunter Henry, look for Jeremy Sprinkle and Mitchell Loewen to pick up any slack.
The offensive linemen shuffle positions in 2014 to cover the departures of Travis Swanson and David Hurd, but the group is not without game experience. At least six offensive linemen played in 7 games or more in 2013: 6’10” Dan Skipper (12), 6’7″ Brey Cook (12), 6’5” Denver Kirkland (12), 6’3″ Cordale Boyd (9), 6’5″ Grady Ollison (7), 6’4″ Mitch Smothers (5). Both Skipper and Kirkland received post-season honors. Coming out of the spring, Boyd and Smothers are positioned to fill the center position while Luke Charpentier broke the starting lineup.
Arkansas added two huge offensive line recruits for the off-season who are now on campus. Cameron Jefferson from UNLV transferred to Arkansas for his senior season after the NCAA declared UNLV ineligible for post-season play. (That ban was subsequently lifted but didn’t effect Jefferson’s transfer.) Cameron is 6-6, 300 lbs. and was a three-year starter for the Running Rebels after redshirting for the 2010 season. The Hogs also added Juco lineman Sebastian Tretola at mid-term. Tretola, 6-5, 315 lbs. redshirted his freshman season at the University of Nevada before transferring to Iowa Western where he played for two seasons.
Overall the 2014 Razorbacks return a solid defensive front with four returning defensive ends having played in all 12 games in 2013. Of the group Trey Flowers received post-season accolades including the Coaches’ All-SEC 2nd team nod. Of the four defensive tackles returning with 2013 game experience, Darius Philon is the one to watch. He was on Athlon’s Freshman All-American 2nd team and made the SEC All-Freshman team. He’s a run-stopper and can pressure a quarterback. He’ll team up with DeMarcus Hodge who played in 11 games last year. Hodge may not have the name recognition of his teammates but look for him to make an impact as teams look to shut down Flowers and Philon.
The undeniable truth is that Arkansas’ linebacking corps has been depleted since Houston Nutt left, and none of the coaches have corrected it. Hope springs from this group of linebackers, particularly from Martrell Spaight who hits so hard at times that his victims are “Spaighted,” and from Brooks Ellis, both of whom saw significant 2013 playing time. With 77 tackles, Braylon Mitchell was the most productive linebacker who returns for the Hogs. Depth and experience remain issues.
If Robb Smith can improve this bunch then he’ll have whatever vote I can give for post-season coaching accolades. They are undersized, frequently out of position, and burned more than should be allowed for an SEC team whether the opposing quarterback makes the connection or not. That said, they are good people and clearly a hard-working bunch. But back to football… the word for 2014 appears to be that DC Smith wants to run press coverage. A Twitter expression sums up the review here the best… **grabs popcorn**.
Aussie kicker Sam Irwin-Hill is a field position weapon, but there will be a lot to prove for the next field goal kicker to prove to replace Zach Hocker, especially at a distance. John Henson is a serviceable kicker who will have a chance to show if he has a leg for accuracy or distance that he hasn’t shown so far.
Cody Hollister and Jared Cornelius have already shown that they may contribute to the team but look for 6’6″ receiver Kendrick Edwards out of Miami to work his way into the lineup.
El Dorado Arkansas’ Bijhon Jackson will get time on the defensive line. He’s too big and too talented not to bring him along quickly.
On the offensive line, look for freshman Frank Ragnow from Minnesota, Sr. Cameron Jefferson and Jr. Sebastian Tretola to see playing time.
Cole Hedlund from Argyle, Texas, should compete for the kicking job, and the staff will look to players like Khalia Hackett and Santos Ramirez to shore up the secondary and linebackers.
However, it’s difficult to see where the coaching preference will be to play talent before experience or that anyone in this class come in with an Alex Collins type of impact. “They’ll play when they’re ready” is the mantra.
Keys to 2014
This team’s immediate future lies almost assuredly with whether Bielema will allow the offense to play that was on the field for the 2013 LSU game. The style was open and not nearly as predictable as the style played for several weeks before LSU. Nothing’s changed. Arkansas fans have seen some of the best offensive backs ever in college football combined with a pitiful passing game and know that great running backs will take us only so far in the SEC.
Overall, this team does not have the talent to be predictable on either side of the ball. If there’s another Skywalker to come to the rescue, it’s the defensive line’s ability to get to the opposing quarterbacks. Philon is that good, but it remains to be seen if Robb Smith will get to attack or will play “keep them in front of you” ball.