The image we were left with of Brandon Allen last season was one of a redshirt freshman with a deer-in-the-headlights look, from the moment he was thrown into the fire trying to help Arkansas hold onto a game against Louisiana-Monroe to the late-season mop-up duty in Starkville during another ugly Arkansas Razorbacks football loss.
Competing for the starting quarterback job under new coach Bret Bielema instead of knowing he was Tyler Wilson’s backup and getting few snaps, Allen’s confidence was back during 15 practices this spring. Charged with managing the offense, rather than having to BE the offense, the Fayetteville product accomplished Bielema’s first edict of his quarterback: eliminate turnovers. He failed to read a safety properly and was intercepted and duly chastised during one April scrimmage, but in front of an amazing turnout of 51,088 fans last Saturday for the program’s annual Red-White Game, he delivered a turnover-free effort.
Allen was among the many bright spots of a spring practice under a new regime picking up the pieces left from Bobby Petrino’s short-lived era.
The public was granted viewing privileges to two scrimmages, including the last one, and the media also had limited chances to watch this new program take shape as Bielema chose to keep distractions to a minimum. The players had lots to learn from the new staff and lots to forget from the old one.
Let’s break down various areas of the team, with our assigned grades for the spring practice (mostly based on the Red-White Game performance):
Quarterbacks: B-. Under new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s system, the quarterback will be more of a manager a la Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, putting his best skills to use in distributing the ball to the skill positions, which will see an upgrade in the fall with several incoming freshmen. According to Bielema, Allen steadily took command of the starting role over fifth-year senior Brandon Mitchell, who is still destined to play a lot somewhere (back at wide receiver?). Mitchell was slightly more careless; in the Red-White game, he cost the offense a scoring opportunity in the Red Zone by throwing behind a receiver for an interception.
Allen was 11 for 16 for 183 yards and a touchdown, nothing to go crazy over, but solid enough. Two of his incompletions were deep throws intended for speedy senior Javontee Herndon; his accuracy on the long pass is still a question mark.
What we didn’t see was a package for Mitchell to exploit his running ability. It’s probably Jim Chaney’s intent that we didn’t see it. Mitchell has to figure in a lot of snaps early on as the backup. Entrusting the No. 2 position to a walk-on or a true freshman in the SEC could be disastrous if Allen takes a disabling hit.
Running backs. B-. Walk-on bruiser Patrick Arinze was the surprise of the spring and deserved an A for his play, especially in the Red-White game. Another bowling ball, Kody Walker, plagued by leg injuries his first two years on the Hill, flashed some moves we didn’t know he had (hard to know anyway when he was only used for short-yardage runs by the previous staff). Returning sophomore tailback Jonathan Williams wasn’t given much to do on Saturday, for whatever reason. The backs were good receiving targets as well as loads to tackle running it. What we failed to see was a real breakaway threat, despite some nice holes opened by the line and by Chaney’s occasional misdirection calls. We came away from watching Saturday’s scrimmage feeling certain that incoming freshman Alex Collins will play a big factor this fall in the run game.
Receivers. C+. The grade is slightly above average because we saw only two standouts in Herndon and Demetrius Wilson, who spent last fall acclimating himself from the juco ranks. Bielema came back this past Monday and proclaimed Wilson the top receiver this spring. Both give the Hogs the chance to turn short gains into bigger ones, though again, the deep throw chemistry will need to develop this summer between Allen and his targets. The tight ends made some plays, but we felt Bielema and staff weren’t sure they had enough playmakers here. Freshman Hunter Henry will get a chance to play early. For fans worried that Arkansas was returning to a run-only offense, though, the top two quarterbacks attempted 33 passes.
Offensive Line. B-. During the Red-White game, this group performed better as a unit than we were led to believe they would. Bielema has taken a page from the Houston Nutt/Mike Markuson book of putting the best blockers at guard-center-guard, and it showed. Arkansas focused much of its scrimmage work on establishing a running game through the interior gaps. Pass protection was OK for the first unit.
Defensive line. B-. The ends, led by Chris Smith and Trey Flowers, were a solid A throughout the scrimmage work, both in what we saw during the finale and in what the coaches indicated at other times. Interior linemen mostly still seemed to take up space rather than make any plays, though youngsters Jamichael Winston and Deatrich Wise seemed to be in the middle of the action a lot on Saturday.
Linebackers. C. The effort was clearly there, as everyone that linebackers coach Randy Shannon had to work with ran aggressively to the point of attack. The Hogs were without at least three linebackers, though, who figure to play significantly this fall: returning sophomores Otha Peters (hip) and A.J. Turner (broken hand) and incoming juco transfer Martrelle Spaight. Also, we keep hearing hints that freshman Brett Ellis will figure in the mix. Longtime special team regulars Braylon Mitchell and Jarrett Lake were in on a lot of tackles Saturday, as was Daunte Carr. Whether than can cover anyone out of the backfield remains to be seen.
Secondary. C-. This position has been a work in progress for years, it seems. Veteran Tevin Mitchel was hurt early in the Red-White game and didn’t play much. The other corners had a few good moments and some gaffes: overplaying passes, misplaying passes, poor tackling. Corners did a good job of staying with receivers, but that could also be a reflection of a lack of speed with many of the wide-outs. Newcomer safety TQ Coleman had the interception of Brandon Mitchell, and a nice return, to spoil a scoring chance, but he also was lost on a Mitchell touchdown pass to Jeremy Sprinkle later in the game. Rohan Gaines was talked about a lot during spring drills, and he must of have decently on Saturday because we didn’t notice him failing to make basic plays.
Kicking. A-. Zach Hocker hasn’t been used for punting yet, but the senior from Russellville showed he hasn’t forgotten anything from high school, booming several punts Saturday. And maybe his bad day against LSU was a wake-up call, he outkicked walkon John Henson, who took his place in the LSU game, in field goal attempts, even drilling a 50-yarder.
Bielema bookends his spring practice period with a pair of eight-week conditioning periods, and the players return to the work with strength coach Ben Herbert now. Some of his transformation work was apparently in the spring with such players as senior defensive end Chris Smith.
What stood out most though is that Arkansasas a team will be better transformed when several freshmen arrive in coming weeks. Also, healthier linebackers will help, running backs and the offensive line will get a boost or two in ability, and the receiver corps will add another speedster from the junior college ranks. The secondary will continue to be a concern, but the Hogs’ staff seemed most concerned this spring with devoting its front seven to stopping the opponents’ run game.
Oh, and one last grade: Fans. A+. We fully expected the UA sports information office to announce a 51,000 fan turnout no matter how full the stands were Saturday, simply to say they lived up to Bielema’s wish for 50K. Yet, sure enough, Arkansas Razorbacks football fans managed to fill both lower sides of Reynolds Razorback Stadium and the lowest section of the south end zone. We could quibble and say maybe there was really only 44,000 (the capacity for Razorback Stadium without the upper decks and skyboxes added), but it was thousands by far more than the previous announced high of 45,000 in attendance last year. That’s a heckuva turnout for a glorified scrimmage that was televised.