Ten questions facing Hogs prior to preseason practices

Though the Arkansas Razorbacks have spent the summer working out on campus, the Hogs officially report for the start of the 2016 season on Wednesday and then begin workouts on Thursday.

Entering the fourth season under the guidance of Bret Bielema, the Hogs have questions that must be answered like every other team in America. Some can be answered easier that others. A few might be answered during training camp, while other answers will develop throughout the season.

Here are 10 that are the most compelling to me.

10. What type of injury toll will the Hogs’ face?
With football there are injuries. It’s a fact of the game, and an unknown variable every team deals with. However, some are more detrimental to a team than others. Honestly, the Razorbacks can ill afford injuries anywhere on the field, but quarterback, running back, linebacker and tight end are positions where a loss of a starter would be a tough blow. Obviously there is no way to know when or how injuries will strike this year. One can only hope there will be relatively few.

9. Will the Razorbacks take a sense of urgency into the season?
The Razorbacks have been notoriously slow starters under Bielema. Last season most expected the Razorbacks to be 3-0 heading into their annual SEC opener with Texas A&M at Arlington, but the Hogs were 1-2 after being shocked by Toledo and the whipped by Texas Tech on consecutive September weekends. The road to 3-0 is more difficult for the Razorbacks this season. Louisiana Tech won nine games last season including a bowl victory over Arkansas State. TCU went 11-2 last year and finished No. 7 in the final polls. Head Coach Gary Patterson must retool his offense this season, but the Horn Frogs are expected to be as salty as ever on defense. Bielema has said the challenge of playing a strong Power 5 Conference opponent so early in the season should set a strong tone for the Hogs going into practice.

8. Will tackling improve, particularly in the secondary?
The Razorbacks ranked 11th in the SEC last year in total defense and dead last in pass defense, surrendering 275 yards per game. Certainly, much of the porous play can be attributed to sloppy coverage, but more of it had to do with poor tackling after the catch. New defensive backfield coach Paul Rhoads, head coach at Iowa State from 2009-2015, worked with his troops hard on taking better angles to the football in the spring. That effort needs to pay dividends if the Razorbacks are to make strides defensively this fall.

7. Will the Razorbacks be able to muster a more effective pass rush?
To the Razorbacks’ credit, only Alabama defended the run better than the Hogs last season in the SEC. Arkansas held opponents to just 116 yards rushing per game. However, the same front seven that was so effective at plugging up opponent’s rushing attacks had difficulty pressuring opposing quarterbacks. The Razorbacks recorded only 20 sacks for just 125 yards in loses, which was 12th in the SEC.
That must improve for the Hogs’ defense to improve this season. Deatrich Wise exerted himself in the last half of the season to finish with 8 sacks, which was good enough to rank in the SEC’s top 10, but he needs help. Arkansas moved defensive end Jeremiah Ledbetter to tackle to add more of a burst inside with his quickness. True freshman McTelvin (Sosa) Agim is physically mature for his age, super quick and has a nose for the quarterback. Expect him on the field in many passing situations.

6. Will field-goal accuracy improve?
Arkansas kicker Cole Hedlund made just 9 of 15 field goals last season for a 60 percent average. He hit 8 of 10 field goals from less than 30 yards, but only made 1 of 5 attempts for more than 30 yards, a 45-yarder. Even more troubling was that four of his attempts were blocked. Many kickers go through a college career with fewer than four blocks. For the Hogs to maximize their point production, Hedlund or some other kicker must be more productive this season. The last half of the season, the Razorbacks became very effective offensively, but blocked field-goal attempts helped force an overtime against Ole Miss and possibly cost Arkansas a victory over Mississippi State. With the offense being retooled, the less experienced Razorbacks may need to rely more on field goals this season than last.

5. Will a trustworthy back-up tight end emerge?
Senior tight end Jeremy Sprinkle is one of the best players on the team, and one of the best tight ends in the nation returning from last season. Sprinkle is a dark horse candidate to win the Mackey Award for the nation’s best tight end. No doubt, the coaching staff would clone him if they could, but they can’t. That means one or two younger players need to step up so offensive coordinator Dan Enos can use the two tight end sets that were so effective a year ago with Sprinkle and Hunter Henry. Arkansas signed a strong freshman class of tight ends last year with Fayetteville native Cheyenne O’Grady, Austin Cantrell and Will Gragg, but through spring practice none had mastered both the route running, receiving and blocking aspects of the position well enough to please tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. Bentonville sophomore Jack Krause might shake out to be the best option because of his blocking ability, or the Razorbacks may have to platoon at the position based on the need of the play and skill of the players.

4. Will the Razorbacks be able to depend on more than two linebackers?
Bielema, his defensive coordinator Robb Smith, and linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves all agree that they relied on Brooks Ellis and Dre Greenlaw — both Fayetteville High graduates — to play too many downs last fall. They played most of the meaningful downs after Josh Williams suffered a severe leg injury against Tennessee last fall. Williams is attempting to return to the field this season, but there should be more Hogs available to support Ellis and Greenlaw this season. There were available bodies last year, but they weren’t ready enough to play anything but spot roles. That needs to change this season. Khalia Hackett and Dwayne Eugene were among the not-ready-for-prime-time players last year. Maybe they have matured. Randy Ramsey had a strong spring after returning to the team after academic troubles last fall, and Kendrick Jackson could garner playing time after moving back to linebacker from helping out at fullback last season. Arkansas has several freshmen linebackers who joined the team in the summer. If any are ready, they might prove to be a factor like Greenlaw did last year.

3. What will be the pecking order at running back?
It would not be a surprise to see senior running back Kody Walker start the season opener against Louisiana Tech, but even though Bielema has said that Walker could be a 1,000-yard rusher at Arkansas, he’s likely just a part of the puzzle. The question remains, who will join him in the rotation? Rawleigh Williams III appeared to making strides last fall before the freshman suffered a season-ending neck injury against Auburn. Williams practiced well in the spring, but did not take any live contact. He is a question mark until he does. Freshman Devwah Whaley of Beaumont, Texas was a coveted recruit by Georgia and Texas. He could make an impact this season. Damon “Duwop” Mitchell has played quarterback and receiver at Arkansas, but in the spring, he settled in to the running back spot. Bielema seems to prefer a committee approach to the position, but will that committee be two- or three-headed or possibly more?

2. How quickly will the offensive line mesh?
The best offensive lines play with one heartbeat, but before that type of unity can develop, a starting five has to be set. First-year offensive line coach Ken Anderson will still be looking for a starting right guard when practices open on Thursday to join returning starters Dan Skipper and Frank Ragnow at right tackle and center respectively. Sophomore Hjalte Froholdt is penciled in at left guard and redshirt freshman Colton Jackson at left tackle. Sophomores Brian Wallace, Zach Rogers and Johnny Gibson, junior college transfers Deion Malone, Paul Ramirez, redshirt freshman Jalen Merrick, junior transfer Jake Raulerson from Texas, and true freshman Jake Heinrich are all in the picture. That’s a lot of players to sort through, but at least there is material to work with. It will be interesting to see which one takes the bull by the horns and nails down the job. Once that happens, the line can begin to form the bond needed to work in unison. It’s hard to say how well they line will work together at the beginning of the season, but their play should only improve as the season goes progresses, barring injuries.

1. How steep will quarterback Austin Allen’s learning curve be?
With three years working as an understudy to his brother Brandon Allen, and a season and a spring working in offensive coordinator Dan Enos’ system, Austin Allen has been groomed to take over as the Hogs’ starting quarterback. Enos and Bielema have praised the junior from Fayetteville since last summer, remarking on his growth, improvement, and leadership. He’s ready to take over the quarterback position. That said; he will still have a learning curve at the most important position on the field. How steep it will be, we can only guess. Bielema has protected him from being thrown into the flames too quickly, but it’s time for Allen to graduate from the kiddie end of the pool and swim into the deep water. Nothing can be taken for granted going into the season, although I suspect he will compete and play well.

2016 Arkansas Razorback Football Schedule

Sept. 3 – Louisiana Tech at 3 p.m. in Fayetteville (SEC Network)
Sept. 10 – TCU at 6 p.m.in Fort Worth, Texas (ESPN/ESPN2)
Sept. 17 – Texas State at 6:30 p.m. in Fayetteville (SEC Network Alternate)
Sept. 24 – Texas A&M at (TBA) in Arlington, Texas (TV TBA)
Oct. 1 – Alcorn State at (TBA) in Little Rock (TV TBA)
Oct. 8 – Alabama at (TBA) in Fayetteville (TV TBA)
Oct. 15 – Ole Miss at (TBA) in Fayetteville (TV TBA)
Oct. 22 – Auburn at (TBA) in Auburn. Ala. (TV TBA)
Nov. 5 – Florida at (TBA) in Fayetteville (TV TBA)
Nov. 12 – LSU at (TBA) in Fayetteville (TV TBA)
Nov. 19 – Miss. State at (TBA) in Starkville, Miss. (TV TBA)
Nov. 25 – Missouri at (1:30 p.m.) in Columbia, Mo. (CBS)