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2015 Fierce 40 Previews: #9 Arkansas

by DJ Boyer on Sep. 8, 2015

#9 Arkansas Razorbacks

 

2014 Recap:

A 7-6 record may not seem like a success, but this was a huge step for Arkansas into making themselves competitive, especially for 2015. Arkansas started hitting their stride late and posted back-to-back shutouts over LSU and Ole Miss before dropping a close one to Missouri and ending the year by pasting Texas 31-7 in the Texas Bowl. After dropping the opener to Auburn 45-21 Arkansas didn’t lose another game by more than a touchdown with some close losses to Texas A&M, Alabama and Georgia.

Coaching:

Some people really scratched their heads when Bret Bielema left what looked like a very stable Wisconsin situation to come to Arkansas, but after improving from three wins to seven wins the third year looks like double digits and a possible SEC title. If Bielema can sustain the talent that has been coming to Arkansas the Razorbacks will be competitive for quite some time. Dan Enos leads an offense that should improve on their overall ranking of 60 from last season. Robb Smith leads a defense that ranked #10 overall in the country as well as 10th in scoring defense at 19.2 PPG. Arkansas suffered numerous losses on defense, so Smith needs to do a stellar job to equal last seasons production.

 

Offensive Analysis

Quarterbacks/Running Backs:

Just how good is the Arkansas running game? You can see we have Alex Collins listed as a 2nd round pick if he declares after a 1,100 yard rushing season with 12 touchdowns. Collins was the SEC freshman of the year in 2013 after a 1,026 yard campaign. Collins did all of this as the backup. Well, Collins was listed as second on the depth chart behind Johnathan Williams, but it is really more like 1 and 1A. Williams had the same amount of touchdowns as Collins and beat him by seven carries and 90 yards. Arkansas looked like they would have the best 1-2 running back punch in the country, but Johnathan Williams senior season has been lost to a foot injury that will sideline him for the season. Kody Walker is a bruising 250-pound fullback that tallied nearly 150 yards and a touchdown last season at just about 5.0 YPC. He will do the blocking and take some of the load off of Collins. How much of the load will be taken by Walker depends upon the performance of incoming freshman Rawleigh Williams III. But running the football isn’t all this offense is capable of.

Brandon Allen comes into his senior season at Arkansas as the most experienced quarterback in the entire SEC. Allen is coming of a season of 190-339-2285-20-5 for an impressive 4/1 TD/INT ratio. Allen isn’t the most nimble quarterback, but he can get the first downs in short yardage and deflect pressure and step up when need be. Arkansas quarterbacks were sacked only 14 times, the lowest number in the conference. This has all the makings of a fantastic year even after the loss of Johnathan Williams.

Best Draft Prospect: Alex Collins RB 2nd Round 2016 (if he declares, part of the 2017 draft class).

 

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:

Arkansas was effective at spreading the ball around in 2014. No receiver totaled more than 600 yards receiving for the season, but five receivers had more than 200 yards and 11 different players caught a touchdown pass. Keon Hatcher led the team with 43-558-6 while tight end Hunter Henry finished second in catches and yards with 37-513-2. Henry, if he declares, has a chance at being the top tight end taken in this draft. At 6’5” 250 Henry is tall enough to be a tight end and just big enough to not be a blocking liability in the NFL. Arkansas will go back and forth between three receiver sets or having two receivers and using a pair of tight ends, much like Bielema did while the head coach at Wisconsin.

Jared Cornelius and Drew Morgan are the next wide receivers on the depth chart that should see most of the time. Both are capable, but again it will be the tight end position that is vital as backup Jeremy Sprinkle looks to be a capable mover of the chains himself. Sprinkle has great size at 6’6” and when asked to sit down in a soft spot within a zone he seems to find it with ease. Arkansas will find plenty of work for JUCO transfer Dominique Reed and his 6’3” frame. This is a balanced receiving attack, and as long as Arkansas avoids major injuries this position will be far from a liability.

Best Draft Prospect: Hunter Henry TE 2nd Round 2016 (if he declares, part of the 2017 draft class).

 

Offensive Line:

Arkansas comes at you with an offensive line that returns 4 out of 5 starters with no player weighing under 309 pounds and an average weight of 322. It is hard to pick out a lineman that can be thought of as the best, as there looks to be at least three future NFL players along the line that will be taken in the middle rounds. Sebastian Tretola is a mammoth 325-pound guard that can skip out and catch some touchdowns around the goal line as well if the opposing defense isn’t careful. Tretola is one of the best run blockers in the conference and the senior leader along the line. Right tackle Dan Skipper is the lightest starter at 309 pounds, but he is the tallest at 6’10”.

Denver Kirkland at left tackle goes over 340 and is an amazing pass protector who can be a 1st or 2nd round pick if his run-blocking catches up with his pass protection skills. Mitch Smothers is an experienced, tough center. There are just too many good pieces to this offensive line to not be successful. The line will need to be stellar and hold up over the game to wear out defenses. Arkansas was a +148, outscoring their opponents last season in the 1st and 2nd quarters. That number in the second half while adding in OT was only +3.

Best Draft Prospect: Dan Skipper OT 4th Round 2017.

 

Defensive Analysis

Defensive Line:

The Razorbacks had three players register 10 more tackles for loss last year, and they all played along the line and were lost to the NFL. While the team may improve overall, we aren’t going to pretend and say the line won’t go through some growing pains and a period of adjustment. Taiwan Johnson is an undersized defensive tackle who played alongside the departed Darius Philon and had 26 stops with eight coming for loss.

Senior DeMarcus Hodge steps into the starting role after seeing action in 12 of 13 games a season ago. JaMichael Winston is back at defensive end and will have to pick up the slack for the departed Trey Flowers. Tevin Beanum should start and share some time with fellow ends Jeremiah Ledbetter and Deatrich Wise Jr. The depth is not here and should be an area Arkansas concentrates on during the next recruiting class.

Best Draft Prospect: N/A.

 

Linebackers:

Brooks Ellis finished second on this team in tackles with 72 while adding a pair of interceptions and defending a total of seven passes. Ellis finished second to Martrell Spaight in tackles, but with Spaight now in the NFL Brooks has moved outside to his old position. Junior Josh Williams returns to man the other outside linebacker spot coming off of a 29-tackle season. Now the middle will be filled by sophomore Khalia Hackett who could wind up being the best prospect on this team in a few years. Hackett drew praise from everyone in attendance during spring drills and the spring game. Arkansas will occasionally go with a fifth defensive back, and when they do they normally drop down to just two linebackers. Josh Harris and Dre Greenlaw will see time at linebacker off the bench, and both are freshman so we will have to see how they perform.

Best Draft Prospect: Brooks Ellis LB 7th Round 2017.

 

Secondary:

The Razorbacks were more prone to being beaten by the passing game than the running game a year ago, but they were still a respectable 37th in the nation. Junior cornerback Jared Collins is back after leading the team with 13 pass breakups as well as 13 passes defended. D.J. Dean figures to be the other starter at cornerback and he tied for the team lead with a pair of interceptions during 2014. Henre’ Toliver figures to be the nickel back, and he also had a pair of interceptions while playing as a freshman last season.

Rohan Gaines is back as the strong safety starter, and he may be the fastest player in the Arkansas secondary. Gaines is deceptively quick and his change of direction skills are top notch. Josh Liddell started in two games as a freshman last year while seeing action in twelve. Kevin Richardson is another inexperienced sophomore who is behind Liddell on the depth chart and will be called upon if Liddell falters early.

Best Draft Prospect: Jared Collins S 7th Round 2016.

 

Special Teams

Adam McFain handled most of the field goals a season ago, but he seems to be have been displaced by Cole Hedlund for the job. McFain struggled with accuracy and kickoffs last season, as only 25% of his kickoffs went for touchback. Hedlund is a freshman, and that will fall in line with the rest of special teams, as the punter will also be new for the Razorbacks. Junior Toby Baker had one punt for the team last season, but he looks like he has Arkansas had higher averages for kickoff and punt returns than that of their opponents last season with one kickoff being returned for a touchdown. The coverage teams look like they will be strong once again, while the return teams for kickoffs and punts look like they will change periodically.

Best Draft Prospect: N/A.

 

2015 Schedule

Arkansas will need to use their experience from last season in order to stay competitive, because they have one of the tougher schedules within the SEC. Weeks 4-7 look brutal on the schedule, and the first three games against Texas A&M, Tennessee and Alabama will be away from home before they return to Fayetteville to face Auburn. Ole Miss and LSU will be back-to-back again, and both of these games will be on the road. You better believe both teams will want the Razorbacks after being shut out in 2014. Win-able games against Mississippi State and Missouri will be at home to end the regular season.

 

Draft Prospects & Outlook

There are a number of prospects on the razorbacks roster, but unlike last season, the focus will be on offense instead of the defense. Alex Collins should be the focus, and Johnathan Williams should get another season next year. His senior campaign will be key to show his recovery from injury. The offensive line is loaded, and Brandon Allen stands a chance at getting an undrafted free agent look if he continues to not make mistakes and play within himself. Brooks Ellis looks like the defensive gem, and the move from middle linebacker to the outside will be very interesting to track.

 

DJ Boyer