Arkansas football: 10 biggest questions as the Razorbacks enter preseason camp
Arkansas football was one of the best stories to come out of 2020.
The Razorbacks faced an all-SEC schedule when they hadn’t won a conference game in 19 tries. They won 3 ― 3 more than anyone expected. Sam Pittman was lauded as the top hire the Razorbacks have made in a long 5-year stretch. That included 3 different coaches and very few high points.
Pittman already jumped his first hurdle in rebuilding the football program. But expectations are sure to rise in Year 2. Can he continue the progress? Here are 10 questions I have about Arkansas heading into fall camp and the 2021 season:
1. Who will replace Mike Woods?
The Razorbacks were expected to return 20 starters this season. That number fell to 19 after the unexpected transfer of Woods. Who replaces him is a major concern.
Woods had a breakout year in 2020, finishing second on the team with 619 yards receiving and 5 touchdowns. He was Feleipe Franks’ primary deep threat, but now he teams up with Spencer Rattler at Oklahoma.
There are 3 candidates who stand out: junior Trey Knox, senior De’Vion Warren and Sooners transfer Jaquayln Crawford. Knox is the likely candidate after a somewhat disappointing sophomore season. He looked promising as a freshman, when he finished with 28 catches for 385 yards.
2. How much will the offensive line improve?
Arkansas soon could have one of the best offensive lines in the conference.
A former O-line coach, Pittman should have the unit playing better in 2021. The Hogs ranked 104th in FBS in power success rate, which is the percentage of conversions on 3rd- and 4th-downs with 2 or less yards. They were also 113th in sack rate, so getting more protection for first-year starter KJ Jefferson will be imperative.
Speaking of which …
3. Can KJ Jefferson be a reliable starter?
Jefferson has so far passed the few tests thrown at him, but Franks was the MVP of this offense in 2020, the steadying force in Year 1 of a new culture. Replacing Franks’ leadership and ability won’t be easy.
Jefferson threw for 274 yards, 3 touchdowns and no interceptions in his lone start of 2020. It will be interesting to see if that carries over for an entire season as starter. It’s reasonable to expect some of the normal growing pains that come with young players, but the potential is certainly there.
Jefferson was a 4-star prospect in 2019, according to 247Sports.
4. Can the defense be more consistent?
The Razorbacks’ defense forced 13 turnovers over its first 4 games, but only 5 the rest of last season.
Arkansas football ranked 11th in the SEC in total defense, giving up 451.7 yards per game. They return 10 starters, including linebackers Grant Morgan and Bumper Pool as well as safety Jalen Catalon. All 3 ranked in the top 5 tacklers in the conference in 2020.
The talent is there for this to be one of the most improved units in the conference in 2020 and easily the best since the 2014 team that only allowed 19.2 points per game.
5. Who will back up Trelon Smith?
Smith has a clear hold on the No. 1 running back spot.
He rushed for 710 yards and 5 touchdowns and has a real chance to improve on those numbers in 2021. The more interesting question entering camp is who will play behind Smith.
TJ Hammonds is back after playing a minimal role a year ago. However, the lead candidate right now appears to be freshman Raheim “Rocket” Sanders. He led all rushers with 6 carries for 57 yards in the spring game. Arkansas fans should be excited to see what his future holds. He could become Arkansas’ next breakout star.
6. Can Treylon Burks be the best receiver in the SEC?
It’s crazy to think that a team that a year ago was on the longest SEC losing streak in school history could have the best player at any position. But Burks is a special kind of athlete.
He has been touted by Pro Football Focus as one of the best receivers in the country after recording 820 yards and 7 touchdowns in 2020. Losing Woods means an even heavier offensive load for the junior. He’ll obviously attract more double coverages and bracket coverages this season, but he’s shown he has the ability to produce in traffic.
7. Which freshmen will make the biggest impact?
Sanders is just one of many talented young players in Pittman’s first full recruiting class.
Ketron Jackson, the Hogs’ highest-rated commit, will get a chance to contribute at receiver. The No. 1 kicker in the nation, Cameron Little, also looks slated to start. Defensive lineman Jalen Williams could boost a group that lost Jonathan Marshall to the NFL draft.
Expect Pittman’s recruiting prowess to be more on display as he settles in.
8. What will Kendal Briles’ second year look like?
The offensive improvement was evident in Briles’ debut season.
Arkansas went from 21.4 points per game to 25.7 and from 340.2 yards per game to 391.5. And that was against SEC defenses. Franks rebounded nicely from an up-and-down Florida career and several players had career seasons. That likely wasn’t a coincidence. Briles has a track record of turning around less-than-stellar offenses.
With as much talent as he has returning, one can only imagine the jump this unit will make in 2021.
9. Can the Hogs handle this schedule?
Arkansas plays Alabama, Georgia and LSU on the road and Texas A&M at home in 2021. They also face Texas. As Pittman noted, they also play 8 consecutive weeks before getting a break.
Their schedule was dubbed the toughest in college football last season and it once again holds that title. The Hogs won’t be favored in any one of those games, but winning 1 has to be the goal.
Arkansas showed an ability to stay in most games last season, except when it came to the conference’s elite. The next step would be to at least put up a fight in these games, and coming away with at least one victory would be a success.
10. Can Arkansas make a bowl game?
The Hogs technically made a bowl game last year, but their matchup against TCU in the Texas Bowl was ultimately canceled.
Because of that unfortunate fact, 2016 is still the last time Arkansas played in a bowl. ESPN’s FPI projects a close finish: Its computers tabbed the Hogs for 5.6 victories, so the Razorbacks have a good chance at snapping that bowl drought in 2021. They have one of the most dynamic players in the country in Burks. A defense that returns all but 1 starter. And most importantly, a coach who has proven he can get the most out of his team.
Arkansas finished with 3 SEC wins last season. It will also play a nonconference schedule in 2021, so I find it hard to imagine the Razorbacks won’t manage at least 6 victories.