Arkansas football: 10 biggest questions (and answers) as Razorbacks enter fall camp
The Arkansas Razorbacks are entering their second season under head coach Chad Morris. After going 2-10 in Year 1, Morris will be feeling the pressure entering the 2019 season.
Rebuilds take time, but there has to be some progress shown every year. Otherwise, fans get restless.
With new quarterbacks Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel competing for the starting job, the offense figures to improve. Will the defense take a step forward, too?
Here are the 10 biggest questions facing the Hogs entering the 2019 campaign, starting with the biggest battle in camp:
1. Who will be the quarterback?
The Hogs have one of the more interesting quarterback battles this fall, as it involves 2 graduate transfers — Ben Hicks from SMU and Nick Starkel from Texas A&M. This is also interesting because Starkel has 2 years of eligibility remaining, while Hicks only has 1.
Morris coached Hicks at SMU before coming to Arkansas. Will that give Hicks the edge? I think Hicks will get the nod, but if Morris wants to have a guy who can play in his system for 2 years, then Starkel is the guy who can do that. That would be a crappy way for Hicks to see his college career come to an end, though.
Having worked with Morris before, Hicks enters fall camp with an advantage. I think he’ll use that advantage to take the field in Week 1 as the Razorbacks’ starter.
2. How dominant will McTelvin Agim be inside?
McTelvin “Sosa” Agim is making the move from defensive end to defensive tackle this fall, and that’s not easy. Last year, Agim recorded 45 tackles (10 for a loss) and 4.5 sacks, to go with 3 forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
Agim’s move inside will try to replace Armon Watts, who was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings in April. He has the talent to be just as good as Watts, but he’ll need some help from those who end up starting alongside him. Arkansas recorded 26 sacks in 2018, but 20 came from guys no longer on the roster.
Agim can’t do it all, so we’ll see who helps him when the 2019 season kicks off in a few short weeks.
3. Will the freshman receivers step up?
Two of Arkansas’s 3 highest-rated signees in the 2019 recruiting class were wide receivers — Treylon Burks and Trey Knox. The Hogs also got a commitment from 4-star TE Hudson Henry, who was the No. 2-rated signee in their class. Add in 4-star WRs Shamar Nash and TQ Jackson and the Razorbacks have an embarrassment of riches heading to Fayetteville this fall.
Knox has drawn the highest praise, but with opportunities available, any of those guys could get plenty of action. Burks is returning from an ACL injury, so we’ll see how he looks this fall. Look for Henry to learn behind the Hogs’ current tight end (see below), but the receivers will need to mature in a hurry to help out whoever ends up winning the starting quarterback job.
Knox seems to be a good bet to have an immediate impact as fall camp gets going.
4. How good can CJ O’Grady be?
The Razorbacks have one of the more intriguing tight ends in the SEC in CJ O’Grady. Last season, O’Grady appeared in 10 games, recording 30 catches for 400 yards and 6 touchdowns.
He’s the Razorbacks’ leading returning receiver, and he’s an intriguing player because he did a lot of his damage against Arkansas’s toughest opponents. Against Alabama, he had 7 catches for 48 yards and 2 scores. Against LSU, he had 6 grabs for 75 yards and 2 more touchdowns.
If he can have that level of production against everyone Arkansas plays this fall, he will have a special season and help the Razorbacks improve on last year’s record.
5. Can the Hogs make some big plays through the air?
We touched on the quarterback battle, but a big issue for the offense in 2018 was a lack of big plays. The Hogs completed 34 passes that gained 20 or more yards, ahead of only Kentucky (31).
Morris clearly wants to change that, based on bringing in 2 new quarterbacks to compete for the starting job this fall. Will either be able to move the ball in bigger chunks? It’ll be hard not to have more success than last year’s throwers.
6. What should we expect from Rakeem Boyd?
The Razorbacks have a talented backfield, headlined by Boyd. Last year, Boyd ran for 734 yards and 2 touchdowns and also added 23 catches for 165 yards as a receiver. Going over the 1,000-yard plateau in 2019 is a very real possibility if the offense improves, as Boyd averaged 6.0 yards per carry in 2018.
Then, opponents also have to deal with Devwah Whaley and Chase Hayden coming out of the backfield. That’s a talented three-headed monster, with Boyd as the focal point, that Morris can utilize in the running game.
7. Can the Razorbacks force more turnovers?
In 2018, the Hogs snagged an SEC-low 5 interceptions. Those interceptions were returned for a grand total of 5 yards, also an SEC low. Those are miserable numbers, and something they’ll need to improve even as they go through major changes in the secondary.
Of those 5 interceptions, the Hogs return exactly 0 of them, as Dre Greenlaw (2) and Ryan Pulley (3) are gone. That’s going to be a huge area of concern this fall. The good news is that they forced 21 fumbles and recovered 11 last season, so they’re aggressive when it comes to attacking the football in opponents’ hands.
8. Can the Hogs fix their punting woes?
Arkansas averaged a dismal 37.5 yards per punt in 2018, ahead of only Alabama. Struggling in the punting game is fine for a team like the Crimson Tide, who only booted the ball away an SEC-low 2.8 times per contest. The Hogs, however, led the conference with 5.7 punts per game.
Reid Bauer punted most often in 2018, and for good reason. He averaged 38.9 yards on 56 punts. Blake Johnson (7 punts at 30.4 YPP) and Matthew Phillips (4 at 38.0 YPP) fared worse.
Bauer seems to be in line to start again this year, but he’ll need to fare better to keep the Hogs’ defense out of bad spots. Morris and his staff hope Bauer doesn’t need to see quite as much field time as he did in 2018, but he’ll need to perform better when he’s out there.
9. Can Arkansas keep opponents out of the end zone?
The defense struggled for much of the 2018 season under DC John Chavis. The Arkansas defense finished 13th in the SEC by allowing 34.8 points per game and 53 total touchdowns. Both numbers beat only Ole Miss’s much-maligned defense.
After losing several key members of the secondary, the Hogs will need some new players to emerge. Morris has upped Arkansas’s recruiting game, but it might take a year or 2 to translate to success on the field.
However, if the offense improves and takes care of the ball more, it’ll help the defense immensely.
10. Can the Hogs compete for a bowl game?
Well, let’s take a look at the schedule to answer this question. It won’t be easy to pick up 4 more victories than they did in 2018, but the schedule is somewhat forgiving.
First, all 4 nonconference games (Portland State, Colorado State, San Jose State and Western Kentucky) are must-wins. Lose one, and the Hogs can kiss a bowl berth goodbye.
So, can they find 2 wins in SEC play? What appear to be their easiest conference games are Ole Miss in Week 2 and Kentucky coming off an off week in Week 7. The problem is that both games are on the road.
Could they win 1 of those games? Sure. Both? Maybe. Could they also pull off an upset against a team like Auburn, which comes into Fayetteville the week after traveling to Texas A&M? It’s possible. It’ll all come down to how well Morris’ offense fares under a new quarterback this fall.