Arkansas' 5 biggest roster decisions heading into the offseason
Although the Arkansas Razorbacks will bring back starting quarterback Austin Allen, as well as one of the SEC’s leading rushers in running back Rawleigh Williams III, the Hogs still enter the offseason with plenty of questions.
Not only will head coach Bret Bielema have to find a replacement for defensive coordinator Robb Smith, who jumped ship to join P.J. Fleck at Minnesota, Arkansas will also have to find replacements for numerous impact players.
As you settle into the offseason, here are five positions Bielema and the Razorbacks will have to focus on:
One of the main reasons Allen was had such a successful debut season was because the Hogs were loaded with pass-catchers. The only problem now, though, is many of the receiving corps will leave the team, including senior wideouts Keon Hatcher and Drew Morgan.
In losing Hatcher (44 catches, 743 yards, 8 TDs), Morgan (65 catches, 739 yards, 3 TDs) and senior Dominque Reed (16 catches, 255 yards, 2 TDs), the Razorbacks will need to account for 125 catches, 1,737 receiving yards and 13 touchdown catches. That is no small task, especially considering Allen likely would prefer to hit the ground running in year two under center. Even with Jared Cornelius returning as a senior, the wide receivers will need a huge boost from newcomers next season.
Thankfully for Arkansas, plenty of incoming recruits should be able to make an immediate impact. Highlighting the deep and talented crop of pass-catchers that will enroll in 2017 is Brandon Martin, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound 4-star receiver out of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Martin isn’t alone, however. The Hogs will turn to his JUCO teammate, Jonathan Nance, to help make up for the receivers who finished their careers this season.
It may not be as dire of a need as wide receiver, but losing Jeremy Sprinkle will be another blow for the passing game. Even though Sprinkle finished the year with just 33 catches for 280 yards, he was one of Allen’s favorite targets inside the red zone. Sure, Austin Cantrell will likely take on a larger role after hauling in 13 passes for 120 yards and a score during his freshman season, but he can’t do it alone.
Arkansas will count on another highly-touted newcomer, Jeremy Patton, to be a force as soon as he arrives in Fayetteville. Patton, who was the top-ranked JUCO tight end in the 2017 class, will give Allen a big target to work with. The Arizona Western College transfer stands tall at 6-foot-6, 230 pounds.
Close your eyes and think about how the offensive line played in 2016. It wasn’t very pretty. Now, imagine that same offensive line without left tackle Dan Skipper, who played his final game for the Hogs in the Belk Bowl. As bad as the offensive line was, Skipper was a true character guy, a leader for a unit in desperate need of one.
Without him, Arkansas will hope redshirt sophomore Colton Jackson is ready to handle the responsibility of covering Allen’s blind side. If he’s not, true freshman Dalton Wagner, a 6-foot-9, 312-pound 3-star commit from Richmond, Illinois, may get a chance to see the field in his first season with the Razorbacks.
The Razorbacks’ kicking game was inconsistent throughout 2016, causing Bielema to eventually bench sophomore Cole Hedlund in favor of senior Adam McFain. The senior gave the kicking game a little more oomph — he went 2-for-4 beyond 40 yards compared to the one miss Hedlund had beyond the 39-yard line.
As of now, it appears Hedlund will have the job. Arkansas doesn’t have any kicker commits, so unless a walk-on makes waves during the offseason, Hedlund will start as a junior in 2017. In all, he made each of his 25 extra-point attempts and was 5-for-7 on field goal tries. He may be pretty automatic from inside of 40 yards (5-for-6), but don’t expect the Razorbacks to try for a field goal from deep next year.
Replacing a leading tackler is always a challenge, and that is one obstacle Arkansas will face this offseason with Brooks Ellis departing from the middle of the defense. Not only did Ellis record a team-best 83 tackles, he also returned an interception for a touchdown in 2016. The senior registered 38 solo tackles last year, an indication that he could take care of his own while also leading the defense.
Even with Ellis, the front seven was far from spectacular last season. This offseason the Hogs will have to try to find his replacement, which could be some combination of junior Josh Harris, sophomore De’John Harris and redshirt freshman Giovanni LaFrance.