Razorbacks face an offensive upheaval as spring practices begin

Keon Hatcher / ArkansasRazorbacks.com

Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos is about to learn how his defensive counterpart felt a year ago when the Razorbacks begin spring football drills Tuesday afternoon.

A year ago, it was second-year defensive coordinator Robb Smith who sought to replace NFL-caliber talent off a top-10 rated defense with the departure of linebacker Martrell Spaight, defensive end Trey Flowers, defensive tackle Darius Philon and nickel back Tevin Mitchell from the program. All four of those Hogs signed NFL contracts last season, and Smith and his defensive staff struggled to fill the holes that they left behind.

This spring Enos begins the process of filling even more holes with the Razorback offense. Gone are three-year starters tight end Hunter Henry, quarterback Brandon Allen, and offensive tackle Denver Kirkland; three-year co-starting running back Alex Collins, and two-year starters guard Sebastian Tretola and center Mitch Smothers. All of those players will get shots at playing in the NFL.

Allen threw 30 touchdown passes last season, Henry is considered by some to be the best tight end prospect the NFL has seen since Jason Whitten, and Collins likely would have become Arkansas’ all-time leading rusher if he had returned and played healthy for his senior year.

The Razorbacks may or may not be better outfitted to replace that much offensive talent than the Hogs were last year on defense. That remains to be seen, but there ought to be some great competition to fill those roles.

Going into spring, junior Austin Allen, Brandon’s younger brother, is first string at quarterback. He’s the only Razorbacks quarterback who has played in a college game. There have not been enough practices open to the public for anyone outside the program to make an educated guess to how close sophomore Rafe Peavey, and redshirt freshmen Ty Storey and Ricky Town are to Allen in the pecking order. Arkansas head coach Brett Bielema said he is not any rush to make a final decision. He said naming a starter 10-days out from the season opener would be fine with him.

Senior tight end Jeremy Sprinkle had a very strong season last year, playing behind and alongside Henry. He caught 29 passes for 389 yards and 6 touchdowns. He likely will be on the Mackey Award Watch List for the nation’s top tight end when it is announced in the summer. With Austin Cantrell and C.J. O’Grady being suspended from the first spring practice for missing a meeting, it appears Will Gragg has a leg up on playing time with Sprinkle.

On the offensive front, it appears the Hogs may have some answers to fit around returning starters Frank Ragnow (6-5, 312) and right tackle Dan Skipper (6-10, 331). At least to start the spring, Ragnow is moving to center but freshman Zach Rogers (6-1, 310) and sophomore Hjalte Froholdt (6-4, 300) will work at the position as well as guard. Sophomore junior-college transfer Deion Malone (6-3, 300) is on campus and could find a starting spot at guard depending on how things play out. Promising sophomore Brian Wallace (6-6-, 317) moves up the depth chart at left tackle.

With Kurt Anderson taking over the coaching duties of the offensive line after the departure Sam Pittman for the same job at Georgia, the competition should be great. Every player has a fresh start with Anderson, who came to Arkansas from the Buffalo Bills, and they will have the chance to prove their value without preconceived notions. Obviously stability on a coaching staff has benefits, but when there is a change, some players blossom under the new coach.

As big a hole as the departure of Brandon Allen and Henry leave at quarterback and tight end, the loss of Collins might leave the biggest void. I believe the Razorbacks have enough quality and quantity to find solid performers at the other spots, but replacing Collins will be tough. Collins carried the load all season, and had one of the truly great seasons for a running back in Arkansas history.

It’s promising that Rawleigh Williams has recovered from the severe neck injury he suffered last year against Auburn, and it’s good that Kody Walker is coming back for his senior year. I’m as excited as anyone that highly touted recruit Devwah Whaley will be on campus this summer, but none of those players have been the lead back for the Hogs, yet.

The Razorbacks should have a strong group of receivers with the return of Drew Morgan, Dominique Reed, Jared Cornelius and Keon Hatcher. Throw Sprinkle in to the mix, and it may be the most talented overall group in the SEC if they can stay healthy.

However, they will be playing with an inexperienced quarterback behind a retooled offensive line with running backs who have only played a B-role in the offense. That is a lot of reworking to do for Enos and the rest of the offensive staff.

That said Bielema’s rebuilding process at Arkansas should be on strong footing going into his fourth year. He has more seniors on this squad than he has ever had at Arkansas. That should bode well for leadership. The Hogs are not void of talent, either, but it is clearly a rebuilding year for the Razorbacks’ offense whether the coaches want to label it as one or not.

Diamond Hogs face a big week

With 50-plus games in a season, no one baseball is all that important; however, the No. 15 Razorbacks’ game tonight at No. 20 Oklahoma State is a great measuring stick for the Razorbacks outside of SEC play.

The game isn’t televised, but it should be. If the Big 12 could get its act together and put together a network like the SEC, Big 10 and Pac-12, it possibly would have been. Of course, Texas, with its money-losing Longhorn Network, is the log in the mud keeping it from happening. But I digress.

The Cowboys are leading the Big 12 with a 3-0 league record and a 17-7 mark overall. OSU has won 11 of their past 12 games, and have the top pitching staff in the Big 12. The Hogs (18-6, 3-3 SEC) swept a solid Auburn squad over the weekend and hope to extend the winning streak before hosting Missouri this weekend for a three-game series.

Arkansas is in fourth place in the SEC West, but just a game behind Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Alabama at 4-2. Ole Miss and LSU lag a game back of Arkansas at 2-4.

How Dave Van Horn’s Razorbacks finish in the SEC will be more of a determining factor on whether the Razorbacks make postseason play than tonight’s game or whn the Cowboys visit Baum Stadium on April 26. However, playing this series could be key for the Hogs when the NCAA extends bids for postseason play. A win or two over a well-respected Big 12 power would stand out on the Razorbacks resume.