2011 Arkansas Razorbacks football report card: Pre-SEC

Photo: Walt Beazley (Full gallery)
Arkansas wide receiver Joe Adams avoids tacklers en route to a touchdown during Saturday’s 38-28 win over Troy.

Three weeks into the season, three games have been played and three wins have been notched in the win column. So far, so good for coach Bobby Petrino and the Arkansas Razorbacks. This coming Saturday, the SEC-slate begins for the Hogs and the games become much more difficult. Four of the last nine games will be against opponents that are ranked in the top 10 of the most current USA Today poll (South Carolina at #10, Texas A&M at #8, LSU at #3 and Alabama at #2). And three of those games will be played away from home.

With the Hogs currently sitting at 3-0, just exactly how are they doing and what should we expect from the rest of our season?

The Arkansas Razorbacks Offense

We all knew coming into the season there were a few questions that needed to be answered: Can Tyler Wilson lead the post-Ryan Mallett offense? Will our new(ish) offensive line be able to open up holes for our running backs? Who will be our feature back now that Knile Davis AND Broderick Green are out for the season? The answers to those questions have been mixed.

Our running game is still not quite where it should be. While it’s true the results have progressively gotten better through the first three games, we’re not running the ball as effectively as we did at the end of last season (full disclosure: it DID take us several games last year to get it going, too). Ronnie Wingo finally showed us some oomph on Saturday when he hit the openings made by the line. Wingo has seemed a bit timid thus far. We know he won’t be a physical replacement for Davis, but hitting the hole is important. The nice thing about Wingo’s game is that he brings a pass-catching element that Davis didn’t necessarily have.

Getting Dennis Johnson back now is a good thing. He may not be 100 percent yet, but he will be a great change-of-pace back for Wingo. And not having Green in the backfield this year hasn’t hurt us yet, thanks to freshman Kody Walker (6-2, 235 lbs.) who is now our featured goal-line back. The only thing that Walker needs to work on right now is not running so straight up. He’s been able to break arm tackles thus far, but don’t expect that trend to continue.

So the offensive line has gotten better each game. At first, the only real running play that worked was the delay draw. Now, with the introduction of Joe Adams and speed experience from playing real games and continued conditioning, toss sweeps are starting to provide good chunks of yardage. Expect the running game to continue improving, albeit at a relatively small pace. Games where we’re able to pick apart a defense with our passing is where the running game will truly shine.

Our passing game hasn’t disappointed three games in. We currently rank 8th in the country in passing with 346+ yards per game. Not too shabby. And, as expected, Tyler Wilson and Brandon Mitchell are distributing the ball all over the field — currently 13 different Razorbacks have caught a pass. We all knew that Cobi Hamilton, Joe Adams and Jarius Wright would be thick in the mix, but we also expected Greg Childs to be back to his former self. Childs didn’t start with the first team in game one, but did in game two where he was targeted several times but never hauled in a pass. He missed game three due to a death in the family, so he hasn’t really had time to get back into his old groove.

Not having Childs at full-strength isn’t a season-changer as the Hogs have so many weapons ready to take his spot at any given time. Sophomores Javontee Herndon and Julian Horton, along with Freshman Marquel Wade, are not only stepping up and contributing, but they’re also giving us a glimpse at what life will be like after our seniors and Hamilton are gone.

A post-DJ Williams offense is different, too, but Chris Gragg and Austin Tate are extremely capable TEs that are filling shoes nicely. They’ll have to shore up their blocking on the ends to help our running game, though.

Quarterback play has been interesting so far. Wilson and Mitchell practically split duties the first two games, and Wilson played almost the entire game against Troy. They’ve both shown great poise in the pocket and are definitely working through their progressions. We haven’t seen a lot of long balls, yet, but I expect that to happen fairly soon. The exciting and scary thing about these two so far is their ability to scramble. I think both are ready to run at the drop of a hat, which is something that Petrino isn’t too happy about. There’s a time and place for a running QB, and our system isn’t built for that right now.

One major area of concern is turnovers. As of now, we’ve fumbled the ball away four times and thrown two interceptions. We’re currently averaging a -2 in turnover margin, that has got to even out or become positive, quickly. Ball control in the SEC will be critical.

Overall, the offense is running well (100% in red zone opportunities). Except for a lull during the Troy game, we’re showing the ability to move the ball down field at an easy rate and a quick clip. And don’t dare think that Petrino has opened the playbook all the way. Our team will again have one of the top 20 offenses in the country by the end of the season. But that all revolves around solid line play, an effective ground game and quarterbacks that can take what the defense gives them.

The Arkansas Razorbacks Defense

Before the season started, we kept hearing that this was Arkansas’ best defense in years. And when the clichéd motto “defense wins championships” is tossed around often in the football world, one couldn’t help but be excited about having a good defense in the SEC.

So far, the defense hasn’t disappointed — TOO much.

Our defensive line, led by Jake Bequette (Sr.), Tenarious Wright (Jr.), Byran Jones (So.) and Robert Thomas (So.), was supposed to be a force to be reckoned with. So far those four players have produced 2.5 sacks and only 4.5 tackles for loss. Bequette was held out of the Troy game, but I was expecting a lot more out of this unit against the teams we’ve played already.

The linebackers have been solid, as usual. Senior Jerry Franklin once again leads the team in tackles with 23, followed up by Ross Rasner, Eric Bennett and Alonzo Highsmith. It’s not uncommon for linebackers to lead teams in tackles. What I don’t like seeing is a defensive back with a lot of tackles.

Secondary play started off strong and has unfortunately been exposed with play against Troy. Our boys had their hands full as Troy’s receivers ran crisp routes en route to out-gaining us offensively. Most of the game our guys were there stride for stride, but for whatever reason they didn’t turn and look for the ball. This is an area that HAS to be fixed before we get too much further, or we could have some bad games on our hands. Now, the good thing is that we probably won’t see a lot of five-wide sets for the rest of the season. But it’s still a problem for coach Willy Robinson.

Speaking of Robinson, there have been a few times (especially last season) where I wasn’t too high on his coaching. Robinson generally has a well-coached team on the field, it’s his game planning that was the issue. The silver lining is that his second half adjustments are usually spot-on. I saw no second half adjustment against Troy. Or at least, I saw no effective adjustment.

For now, we’re going to treat the Troy game (rather, the Troy offense) as an anomaly. Aside from Texas A&M and Tennessee, we’ll be dealing with more run-oriented offenses. And the only offensive coordinator that scares me on any day of the week is Auburn’s Gus Malzahn.

The defense is good, that much is true. But it will need to be sharper and more effective at pressuring the quarterback moving forward. Coach Robinson has to have his guys ready each night with a solid game plan if we’re going to make some noise in the SEC.

The Arkansas Razorbacks Special Teams

We’ve seen both incredible and not-so-incredible with our special teams play this season.

The good: Joe Adams’ and Marquel Wade’s ability to create magic in the open field and make every return an important possession. Zach Hocker has taken over kickoff duty this year and he’s impressed so far with 36% his kicks being touchbacks. Not allowing the opponent a chance at returning a kick is a big deal. Punter Dylan Breeding has punted only 8 times, is averaging 42 yards a punt and has put 4 of them inside the opponent’s 20 yard line.

The bad: Both Adams and Wade have made some questionable decisions to field the football on punts, Adams has fumbled twice (once on a regular offensive play) and Hocker has missed an extra point.

Special teams is an important part of the game. We can’t allow a team to take the ball over after forcing a three and out. We can’t miss an opportunity to tack on a free point. These are things that coach John Smith knows and will be working on every week.

The Rest of the Season

As some have put it, our pre-season is over. The “real” season starts now and it’s not going to be easy. The Hogs have the unfortunate schedule to play away against Alabama and LSU, but those two teams’ offenses haven’t looked overly strong. We have a slew of should-win games left — Auburn, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Mississippi State. The four against the ranked teams are all definitely winnable, but tough.

Overall if our running game stays strong (150ish yards a game), we get sufficient pressure on opposing quarterbacks, limit our turnovers and force more takeaways, this season could find us in the BCS hunt again. Our offense is nearly there. Our defense is capable. It’ll definitely all come down to game plans and execution.

Almost a month ago, I predicted the Hogs to finish 9-3 this year. My hope is that we can turn one, or even two, of those losses into wins. TeamRankings.com predicts that we’ll finish 8-4, but I’m not betting on that. If we can make it through this three-game stretch (@ ‘Bama, vs. A&M, vs. Auburn) with at least two wins, 10-2 or even 11-1 is achievable.

It’s up to us, the coaches and the players to believe.