Arkansas football: Projecting the 2021 starting lineup
The focus in the college football offseason is typically on which seniors won’t be back.
But this year, it’s about which ones will.
The NCAA granted an extra year of eligibility to all players because of the uncertainty that COVID-19 created for 2020. Arkansas benefitted greatly from this ruling, as 7 Razorbacks seniors have already announced their return.
It looks like quarterback Feleipe Franks and defensive tackle Jonathan Marshall will be the only players departing this offseason. Starters such as linebacker Grant Morgan, offensive linemen Myron Cunningham and Ty Clary, and receiver De’Vion Warren all return.
The Razorbacks were one of the surprise teams in college football in 2020, snapping a 20-game SEC losing streak and finishing 3-7. With all of the returning production, they have a chance to continue their gradual ascension in 2021.
They were a middle-of-the-pack team in the conference this past year, ranking 8th in both total offense and points per game. They ranked 11th overall in total defense. I would expect both those numbers to rise over time.
That was hopefully just a preview of what’s in store for the Razorbacks in the Sam Pittman era. Here’s a look at how the starters could shake out and what to expect in 2021:
QB: KJ Jefferson
RB: Trelon Smith
WR1: Treylon Burks
WR2: Mike Woods
WR3: Jaquayln Crawford
LT: Myron Cunningham
LG: Brady Latham
C: Ricky Stromberg
RG: Ty Clary
RT: Dalton Wagner
TE: Hudson Henry
Arkansas returns all but 1 starter on offense, though the player they lose is the most important one.
With Franks gone, I expect Jefferson to step into the quarterback role. Jefferson got 1 start in 2020 when Franks was injured, and he performed admirably, throwing for 274 yards and 3 touchdowns. He was a 4-star prospect and the No. 4 dual-threat quarterback in the 2019 class, according to 247Sports.
Thankfully, he won’t have to worry about a lack of talent to throw to. Burks and Woods return after great seasons, while speedy Oklahoma transfer Crawford joins the mix. The Razorbacks offered him out of high school, and I expect him to overtake Warren as the 3rd receiver.
Aside from Jefferson, the key here will be the progression of the offensive line, as well as Henry. Big things were expected from the line under Pittman, so seeing them take a leap forward in his 2nd year would be encouraging.
Now let’s take try to predict the starters on defense:
JACK: Zach Williams
DE: Eric Gregory
DT: Taurean Carter
DT: Isaiah Nichols
MIKE: Grant Morgan
WILL: Bumper Pool
CB: Hudson Clark
SS: Jalen Catalon
BS: Joe Foucha
CB: Montaric Brown
NICKEL: Greg Brooks Jr.
The Hogs also lose only 1 starter defensively, that being tackle Jonathan Marshall. It is undoubtedly a big loss, as Marshall was their most effective defensive lineman, but it isn’t crushing. Look for Carter, who played behind Marshall in 2020 and finished with 11 tackles, to take over.
The more important news is that Morgan will be back. He, Pool and Catalon all finished among the top 5 tacklers in the SEC this past season. They should only get better and cause opponents an even harder time finding space.
I’m also excited to see how Clark performs in his 1st year on scholarship. He broke onto the scene with 3 interceptions against Ole Miss and spent the year as a starting cornerback.
Brown and Foucha bring plenty of experience as well. With so many players returning, I will be shocked if this unit isn’t better in 2021.
When Arkansas takes the field in 2021, it will essentially be the same squad from 2020.
Jefferson is the No. 1 difference, and how he performs will determine whether the Razorbacks can take another step forward. He has looked solid in the limited sample size that we have, but we can’t go entirely off that game. What kind of player he is will not only impact Arkansas’ potential this year, but in the future as well.
All in all, the returning production has them on pace to continue their upward trajectory.