Film Study: Better beat Arkansas while you can
Well, it finally happened.
The University of Arkansas finally got its much-needed victory in Southeastern Conference play with an uber-convincing 17-0 victory over one of the most physical teams in existence, Louisiana State University.
The Razorbacks have broken their 17-game streak of futility while providing second-year coach Bret Bielema with his first significant win in his brief tenure.
The win comes on the heels of a slew of close calls with other powerhouse programs: 38-25 loss to Texas A&M; 14-13 loss to mighty Alabama; 17-10 loss to then No. 1-ranked Mississippi State.
So the general feeling was that someone left on the schedule would finally fall victim to what most will realize in the coming seasons: Arkansas has the scheme, coaching and personnel to compete with any program in the country.
Furthermore, with the style of football it plays, sustainability is in the forecast as the staff will continually attract recruits with the prerequisite skill set to be serious difference makers.
And while Arkansas’ final two opponents have a combined four losses to its credit — starting with the No. 8-ranked Ole Miss Rebels and finishing with the now 8-2 Missouri Tigers — we could very well see the Razorbacks finish strong, which would further hammer home that notion.
But regardless, Arkansas will make some serious noise in the next couple of seasons and will remain on contentions for years to come. Before the season began, I opined that Bielema was the man to restore the Razorbacks to their rightful place in college football.
The developments of this season have only further cemented my thinking.
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The original thought process behind this piece stemmed from an article previously done about the University of Tennessee and the SEC’s eastern division. I surveyed the landscape of the east to determine what team was poised to breakthrough to the elite.
The conclusion was that Tennessee’s coach Butch Jones was proving to be a master of Xs and Os and recruiting. And despite the fact that Tennessee didn’t currently have the results in the win column to support my proclamation, it was plainly evident that it would rather quickly.
A few major factors were taken into account: scheme, personnel and the ability to recruit and develop with the best of them.
The Volunteers have sinced ripped of a couple of wins over South Carolina and Kentucky and look very much the part of a team that will make a major impact in the 2015-16 season.
While it was easy to fish the Vols out of the eastern division, as only the University of Georgia seems to be a program poised to be good next season (and it will more than likely disappoint, as usual), the Western part of the conference was ten times as hard.
From top to bottom the SEC West is full of teams that have the ability compete on an annual basis — most notably the crème de la crème of college football, the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Bama has the perfect blend of coaching, scheme and personnel. While the Tide are known for putting skill position players in the NFL, it’s the development along both sides of the line of scrimmage that keeps them at the top.
Arkansas, under the stylings of Bielema, may one day challenge the Tide for the spot as “Line of Scrimmage University,” and some could argue they already have. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that Bielema’s University of Wisconsin squads, where he coached from 2006-2012, were the preeminent program as far as putting linemen into the NFL (especially along the offensive line).
While most so-called writers and pundits will have you believe that running the football isn’t as important in this day and age of high-powered passing attacks, it continues to be run-oriented teams like Alabama and the Seattle Seahawks that win championships.
To truly be able to compete you must be able to both run and stop the run; Arkansas excels at both.
Arkansas is Mississippi State minus Quarterback Dak Prescott
State’s rise to prominence isn’t by happenstance; the Bulldogs have a supreme commitment to the run and have a host of defensive linemen that wreak havoc in the backfield.
When a team is able to establish the line of scrimmage, especially offensively, it forces the opposition to be nearly perfect as time of possession is limited. High-powered passing attacks like Texas A&M usually run into trouble when met with resistance from teams like Alabama, State and Arkansas.
Arkansas is the most physical of the bunch as it employs “11,” “12,” “21,” and “22 personnel,” predominantly. It has the most physical offensive line — led by right guard Denver Kirkland and reigning offensive lineman of the week, left tackle Dan Skipper.
Among the bunch, only right tackle Brey Cook will need to be replaced next season. The tight end position is extremely important in Bielema’s scheme. Recent standout NFL players Owen Daniels (Baltimore Ravens), Lance Kendricks (St. Louis Rams) and Garrett Graham (Houston Texans) all starred at tight end for Bielema at Wisconsin.
When you’re in a scheme that uses as much as three tight ends at a time, you can bet your bottom dollar that position is chock full of versatility. Sophomore Hunter Henry may be the premier tight end in the nation. His athleticism, route-running ability and blocking prowess are second to none.
In fact, he’s the straw that stirs the drink for the Bielema-Jim Chaney offensive approach.
Look at how well Henry works out wide as an “X” receiver. He didn’t telegraph his route; he “boxed out” the corner; he knew how to secure the ball so it wouldn’t get dislodged upon impact.
Additionally, fellow sophomore tight end Jeremy Sprinkle may be the most athletic pass-catching target on the roster. Senior A.J. Derby will be a significant loss, but one that can be minimized by Sprinkle playing a larger role.
Sprinkle, however, needs to catch the ball consistently and I believe that will come with more seasoning. But it’s the wide receiver position that is a point of contention for the Arkansas faithful.
No matter how it’s spun, the Razorbacks lack a true No. 1 receiver. While junior Keon Hatcher has a ton of potential, he has yet to take the necessary steps to takeover a contest. He’s a fluid route-runner that has adequate speed and good hands, but he rarely seems to put it all together.
Other than that, not much to speak of on the receiver front. It’s imperative that the staff targets a receiver that can stretch the field as Arkansas should have the most effective play-action fake in the business.
Arkansas has possibly the best offensive backfield in the nation — led by the one-two punch of Jonathan Williams (155 carries for 932 yards with 11 touchdowns) and Alex Collins (150 carries for 886 yards with 11 TDs).
Many fans are crossing their fingers that Williams, a junior, comes back for his final year where he has a chance to be the key cog in the team’s inevitable resurgence. His physical run style may only be superseded by his versatility; he has supreme pass-protection skills; his receiving skills are unreal.
The sophomore Collins is a slasher who has great cut-back ability; he has a penchant for hitting the home run due to his unparalleled vision. It will be a treat watching him dominate the SEC again next season.
Look at how well the run game came together in this particular sequence. Running out of said “11 personnel,” Collins took a “Shotgun Sweep” and followed his blocking to perfection; look at how well the tight end and receiver held their respective blocks to spring the explosive run.
When you add in the stylings of the uber-fast Korliss Marshall, it becomes plainly evident that the backfield can virtually carry the entire team.
But it’s the player handing off that’s a sore spot, at times, for Razorback nation.
Is Brandon Allen Truly The Problem?
Make no mistake about it; a few teams have minimized the Razorback’s rushing attack. In those particular contests, when quarterback Brandon Allen has had to take over the game, the offense sputtered and bogged down.
Allen is widely viewed as an albatross that, at times, single-handedly ruins games for the Hogs — despite the fact that he’s thrown for 15 TDs opposed to just five interceptions. Critics point to his 58 percent completion rate as a major indicator of his inaccuracies.
And they may have a point.
When the majority of your throws go to a couple of tight ends with the catch radius of Dikembe Mutombo, you’d have to be pretty inaccurate not to at least hit an acceptable 60 percent rate.
But to play devil’s advocate, it’s not like Allen has the talent out wide to help him maximize his potential. Can you imagine what Arkansas’ offense would look like if it had a receiver like State’s De’Runnya Wilson (6’5″, 215 lbs)?
His ability to exploit man coverage would work well with Arkansas’ short-to-intermediate passing attack. While I don’t think Allen is elite by any stretch of the imagination, he’s plenty good enough to win a championship with in this type of offense.
He has really good athleticism and has a strong enough arm to complete all the throws in the route tree. Expect him to take it to the next level in his senior season.
Robb Smith’s Defense is Legit
First-year defensive coordinator Robb Smith has brought an extremely physical style of defense to a team with an equally physical offense. His time under former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano, as linebackers coach for the 2013-14 season, showed him how to get the most out of a one-gap penetrating unit.
It doesn’t hurt that he walked into a situation with a talented, yet misguided, unit. And as I mentioned before, it starts upfront with stopping the run. Arkansas is 22nd in the nation giving up only 3.76 yards per attempt.
Sophomore 3-technique Darius Philon is one of the most dominant interior linemen in the entire country. He can shoot or hold up gaps, and he’s a major threat against the run; any line with him on it has a chance to be dominant.
Case in point: Philon, at a 1-technique, smothered this gap despite being doubled and held. While this unit will lose its most notable edge-rusher, Trey Flowers, it has plenty of returning talent that will ensure this top-25 defense only improves. Defensive tackle Taiwan Johnson may eventually be Philon’s equal; he’s a pure one-gap penetrator who can line up at a plethora of techniques.
Other returning standouts include sophomore end JaMichael Winston and fellow sophomore Deatrich Wise Jr., the latter of which contributed 1.5 sacks and a couple of tackles against LSU.
While this unit loses its leading tackler in weak-side linebacker Martrell Spaight, the depth of the linebackers may minimize the loss. Sophomores Brooks Ellis and Josh Williams will form a very formidable duo; both are sideline-to-sideline tacklers who can disengage from blocks.
In the secondary, freshman Henre’ Toliver looks to be a budding superstar. At 6’1″, 192 pounds, he matches up well with the taller receivers in the conference. He and sophomore Jared Collins are perfect for a physical scheme like Smith runs; both will make up for the loss of the talented Tevin Mitchell.
Arkansas will lose senior free safety Alan Turner but does return fellow starter Rohan Gaines.
All in all, the Razorbacks have the scheme, coaching and personnel to ascend near the top of the SEC’s western division. If Hatcher and Allen can take it to the next level, we may very well see Arkansas take the leap that its next opponent, the Ole Miss Rebels, made this season.
The Hogs certainly have all the tools in the tool belt to make that happen. You better beat Arkansas while you can, SEC.