Better of worse? Previewing Arkansas' offense in 2021
Editor’s note: SDS’ annual series previewing every SEC team’s offense continues with Arkansas. Later today: Auburn. Wednesday: LSU.
It’s good to finally have a real discussion about whether Arkansas will be better or worse this season.
When I wrote this article last year, I predicted that the Hogs would be better in every facet. That wasn’t much of a stretch considering they hadn’t won a conference game in over 2 seasons.
They finished 3-7 against an all-SEC schedule. Sam Pittman earned the trust of the players and gave fans confidence that the Razorbacks wouldn’t be dwelling in the doldrums much longer.
Heading into 2021, this prediction is a bit more difficult to make. The bar for “better” is higher. Still, there’s reason to believe the Razorbacks will continue to improve under Pittman.
They lose their starting quarterback, a star receiver and kicker. Other than that, everyone returns. It won’t be easy to replace those lost, but the Razorbacks are in better shape than a lot of other teams who lost more.
But now for the ultimate question: will their offense be better or worse in 2021?
Key losses: Feleipe Franks, QB; Rakeem Boyd, RB; Mike Woods, WR
Key returnees: Treylon Burks, WR; Trelon Smith, RB; Myron Cunningham, OL; Ricky Stromberg, OL; Ty Clary OL
Potential breakout players: KJ Jefferson, QB; Hudson Henry, TE; Jaquayln Crawford, WR
Arkansas was only set to lose 1 starter from 2020 before Mike Woods shockingly announced he was transferring to Oklahoma. That means the Hogs must replace their No. 1 deep threat and starting quarterback (Franks) from 2020.
On the bright side, they return their entire offensive line. Improvement is expected from that group in Pittman’s second year. Perhaps the Razorbacks can develop a bit more of a running game, as they finished just 8th in the SEC last year in rushing yards per contest.
In all, Arkansas returns 9 of 11 starters from an offense that averaged 25.7 points per game a year ago. However, the 2 who are gone were huge pieces and won’t be easily replaced. For now, I’m saying the Hogs stay even.
Passing offense: Worse
Arkansas threw 20 TD passes in 2020, its most since the 2016 season.
Sure, they have to replace Franks, who tossed 17 of them, but I still was extremely excited to watch the Arkansas passing attack this season.
With Burks and Woods set to return, they had a case for one of the best 1-2 receiver punches in the conference. Quarterback KJ Jefferson has only made 2 career starts but flashed his potential against Missouri last year. Depending on how he developed, I could have seen this offensive putting up a lot of points through the air.
Now I’m not so sure.
Burks is still one of the best, if not the best, receivers in the conference. He is behind only Alabama’s John Metchie III for receiving yards among returning SEC players. The question isn’t whether he will perform, but whether someone can step up to fill the void next to him that Woods left behind.
I’m not sure there is a player on the roster who can take on that burden alone. Jaqualyn Crawford, who transferred from Oklahoma last season, could be an option. Tight end Hudson Henry is entering his third season and much has been said about his potential.
If Jefferson, a 4-star prospect coming out of high school, ends up being the player Hogs fans hope he can be, we might still see big numbers from this offense.
Rushing offense: Better
This bar is relatively low. The Hogs finished 10th in the SEC in yards per carry (3.84) and 11th in TD runs (11) yet were 3rd in rushing attempts per game.
Clearly, Pittman wants to run the football. But they have to run it better.
That goal starts with Smith, who took over as starting running back last year after Boyd opted out.
The Arizona State transfer finished with 710 yards on 134 carries and added 6 total touchdowns. Add freshman Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, a 4-star prospect out of Florida, and Smith already has more help than in 2020.
The returning experience at offensive line also should play a key role in an improved rushing attack. The Razorbacks ranked 104th in power success rate and 47th in stuff rate this past year, according to Football Outsiders. Those numbers are likely to improve with another year under Pittman, a former offensive line coach.
With the huge losses in its aerial attack, Arkansas will have to hope its running game can take a step forward.
I believe it will.
Kicking game: Better
Arkansas signed the No. 1 kicker in the country, Cameron Little out of Moore, Oklahoma.
He will likely take over for AJ Reed, who graduated. Reed made 7-of-11 field-goal attempts last season and 27-of-29 extra points. It’s reasonable to expect Little to at least match that, if not exceed those marks.
Burks will likely continue as the punt returner, and I couldn’t think of a more explosive player on the Razorbacks’ roster. De’Vion Warren could return kicks, so whether he returns to full health from a torn ACL will be a big factor.
Even with the loss of Franks and Woods, I think the offense has a chance to be better in 2021.
It’s the second year for Pittman and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles — and the 2nd year Jefferson has been with both. Teams have typically made significant offensive jumps in their second seasons under Briles, and I expect the Razorbacks to do so, as well.
The wide receiver rotation will sort itself out, but the Hogs still have one of the best receivers in the conference and return their entire offensive line. If Jefferson can replace the consistency of Franks, Arkansas’ offense is going to be just fine.