Arkansas' camp to-do list: What's been solved, what remains
The Arkansas football team opens its season in a little over a week, with a number of questions that have yet to be answered.
While Florida A&M on Aug. 31 should be a cakewalk, TCU is coming to Fayetteville the second week of September looking for revenge. The Horned Frogs might not be the most talented team coach Gary Patterson has had at his disposal, but retribution will be on the minds of their players on Sept. 9.
Razorback fans enter this season cautiously after their high hopes for the 2016 team were derailed with a dreadful end to the season. Many blame the atrocious defense in 2016, which shifted schemes to a from a 4-3 to a 3-4 in the offseason. The new defensive game plan has many nervous about what is in store.
Running back Rawleigh Williams III decided to retire, which threw a wrench in the Razorback offense. While the offense seems to be ahead of the defense at this point, there are multiple causes for concern for offensive coordinator Dan Enos.
There are areas of the team that look solid and others cause skepticism heading into 2017.
Here’s a look at the main unanswered and solidified positions as camp winds down.
What has been solved
Quarterback is all good: Arkansas fans can rest easy. The quarterback position is fine.
Austin Allen is one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC. His interception rate (15 in 401 attempts) was abnormally high, but the Fayetteville product delivered throughout 2016.
While he doesn’t add the same element on the ground as Alabama’s Jalen Hurts or Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald, the Arkansas quarterback makes up for his lack of athleticism with a fiery arm, toughness and deadpoint accuracy.
There is a reason he’s on the Manning Award watch list, given to the best quarterback in college football. He has earned that nomination.
Congrats, @austinallen8 ?
— Arkansas Razorback Football (@RazorbackFB) August 16, 2017
Now if Allen goes down, there might be a bit of a problem. Likely backup Cole Kelley looks good in pads with his stature (6 feet 7), but he has yet to compete in a college game. Razorback fans should hope Kelley or Ty Storey won’t be seen until 2018.
2. A go-to guy: Wide receiver Jared Cornelius has improved every season since arriving at Arkansas.
Now, he steps into a role he was familiar with in high school as the main target. Cornelius flourished in his senior year before arriving at Arkansas with more than 1,000 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns. The Louisiana native might not be able to accumulate those stats, but his production is going to rise with Drew Morgan, Keon Hatcher, Jeremy Sprinkle and Dominique Reed all gone.
Cornelius has already made several big plays at his time as a Razorback. Against LSU in 2015, he took a reverse to the house, putting Arkansas up 17 points in the fourth quarter. Last year versus Ole Miss, Cornelius took in the go-ahead touchdown with slightly over 2 minutes on the clock.
He’s a dependable guy who has proven big in clutch situations. That isn’t going to change in 2017.
3. Arkansas will be hungry in 2017: They were hungry after the strong finish at the end of 2015 heading into 2016, but sometimes the pain of defeat pushes people harder to succeed.
Coach Bret Bielema and the rest of the players and staff are craving the opportunity to show out in 2017. Ending the season 9-4 sounds a lot better than 7-5. Several careless plays and coaching decisions cost the team dearly in 2016.
Two of those losses were collapses against Missouri and Virginia Tech.
Throughout the offseason, players and coaches have acted like they have a chip on their shoulder. That’s the perfect mind-set for improvement.
1. Offensive line dilemma: Center Frank Ragnow coming back for his senior season helps ease some doubts, but not all of them.
The offensive line has looked better to this point than it did in 2016. The improvement is attributed to game experience, more reps and good coaching. After so many years with a solid offensive line under him, Bielema took it personally when it was arguably the weakest position group on the team last year.
Hjalte Froholdt was named to the Outland Trophy watchlist, given to the best interior lineman in college football. Ragnow has also caught the attention of the Rimington Trophy voters, who pick the best center.
There is a lot of optimism from the national media about the offensive line. ESPN’s Phil Steele was on with Sport Talk’s Bo Mattingly this month and had a number of positive things to say about the front five.
Phil Steele calls Arkansas' offensive line one of the best in the country pic.twitter.com/OtEQmFyzXP
— Bo Mattingly (@SportsTalkwBo) August 2, 2017
“It is one of the best offensive lines in the country,” Steele said. “I think you are going to see that improvement this year.”
All that being said, the group faces a a below average defense in practice every day. Before jumping to conclusions about their improvement, they need to face real competition, like in Week 2 against TCU.
2. Changing defensive schemes: Adapting in football is necessary to win, but will the Razorback defense adjust in time?
Arkansas lost a tremendous amount of talent from last year’s defense, though it was statistically one of the worst in the SEC. Jeremiah Ledbetter, Taiwan Johnson, Deatrich Wise, D.J. Dean and others are no longer Razorbacks.
Coordinator Paul Rhoads has his hands full in Year 1 with unrealistic expectations from fans who wish the defense to be spectacular just because of the scheme change. It’s not going to be.
The linebackers might be the strongest defensive unit, but that could change quickly. Dre Greenlaw is coming back from an injury, and as one of the best overall defensive players, his health is of huge concern moving forward.
Safeties Josh Liddell and Santos Ramirez have shown flashes, but neither have stayed consistent throughout the season, or a game. Defensive lineman McTelvin Agim is the only steady pass rusher up front, but the new defense should help bring blitzes from different angles. Rhoads will also send more pressure, which Robb Smith didn’t do often.
3. Who is Allen going to throw the ball to besides Cornelius: The same question has been asked over and over since the end of the 2016 season.
So much talent departed on the outside from last year’s team. Now, Allen will have to create chemistry with a number of new wide receivers. Bielema has been known for a strong running game most of his career, but the passing game has been strong of late for Arkansas.
For that to continue, players need to step up. La’Michael Pettway, T.J. Hammonds and others need to help alleviate some pressure on Cornelius and make a difference for the offense. Jonathan Nance is starting to build rapport with Allen, according to Whole Hog Sports’ Jimmy Carter.
At tight end, no one has separated from the others. Austin Cantrell looks like he will start, but if he falters the position could be in flux all season with lineup changes. Bielema has always has had a solid tight end option at Arkansas. That might not be the case in 2017.