Part of the Sporting Life Arkansas Football Preview, Jim Harris outlines 11 questions facing the Razorbacks as kickoff looms.
Bret Bielema has never had a losing team in his seven years as a head coach, all at Wisconsin. He inherited a program on solid football ground from Barry Alvarez in 2006 and improved on it, taking the Badgers to a 12-1 record and a win over Arkansas in the Capital One Bowl.
He accomplished at Wisconsin what only one Razorback coach, Ken Hatfield, managed during his Hog coaching tenure: reaching a bowl game every season.
Coincidentally, just as Hatfield escaped from the meddling presence of his athletic director, Frank Broyles, while putting a conference championship team on the field in consecutive years, Bielema won a third straight Big Ten title and yet moved out from the looming shadow of his athletic director, Alvarez, to take the Arkansas job last December.
For Hatfield, a move to Clemson — where its fan base regularly suffers from over-expectations and where the program had run afoul of the NCAA — was the wrong one, and he was all but told by Clemson boosters after three years to take the new job opening at Rice. It looked good early, though, as one Hatfield assistant confided to someone back in Arkansas that they’d “never seen this kind of defensive talent on one team.”
Surely there is no current Bielema assistant telling friends back in Wisconsin that the UA staff has landed in a mother lode of talent in Fayetteville. Arkansas hasn’t seen a truly great defensive player, an NFL first-rounder, since that 2006 team that played Wisconsin. The Hogs haven’t stopped anybody defensively since before Bobby Petrino’s arrival.
Arkansas enjoyed outscoring folks under Petrino in the go-go years of 2010 and 2011, though. Before Petrino, Houston Nutt tended to play defense with his methodic offense.
The national writers surveying the Arkansas landscape now expect Bielema to bring a grind-it-out offense to Fayetteville again. Program insiders, however, believe Bielema when he’s told them he’s handed the offense over to new coordinator Jim Chaney, who had Tennessee piling up huge offensive numbers last year that still weren’t good enough to translate into enough wins for the deposed Derek Dooley.
Meanwhile, Bielema brought his defensive aces — coordinator Chris Ash and line coach Charlie Partridge — from Wisconsin to restore a one-time Hog tradition of great defense.
Unlike the Clemson where Hatfield landed in 1990, Bielema has to recruit Arkansas into a better place to match the rest of the SEC powers. In the West Division alone, Arkansas is liable to be outgunned across the board in talent this first season under its new coach.
It’s why few prognosticators are willing to step out beyond six wins for the Hogs in 2012, despite Bielema’s perfect run of bowl games and winning seasons to this point.
Here’s 11 questions most asked about this Razorback team and what fans should expect:
Can Brandon Allen be successful at quarterback?
In time, yes. He possesses a strong-enough arm and a good-enough touch with a variety of throws, and he displays solid on-field leadership qualities. But the question is whether he has adequate protection up front for any passing game, especially when the Hogs must pass. In Bobby Petrino’s offense, the quarterback made everything go. Bielema’s Wisconsin teams were good with a “manager” at quarterback. What will the Chaney model look like? Allen isn’t Tyler Bray, the former Tennessee quarterback, nor does he have three difference-making receivers like the Vols had last year. If Arkansas can convert its offensive linemen from pass protectors to steam-rollers for a running game, Allen will be fine. He has to stay healthy.
What if Allen doesn’t stay healthy?
We can’t see a freshman playing in year one in the SEC, but Arkansas might have to go to Austin Allen or Du-Wop Mitchell, no relation to the departed transfer Brandon Mitchell. It would be quite a story, though, if a former walk-on linebacker at Iowa, A.J. Derby, somehow ended up as the starting Hog quarterback.
Can Arkansas stop anyone?
If the opponent is one-dimensional, yes. If they have a good blend of running and passing, the secondary and linebackers will still have problems. The defensive tackles are OK but in two seasons have shown nothing spectacular. The ends remain well-manned with all-conference type talent. Look for Arkansas to deploy an array of stunts up front to keep offenses guessing. Big receivers again will be a problem to contain, and secondary tackling will be an issue.
Will Alex Collins start?
Maybe not in week 1 or even week 3, but Collins, the five-star running back from Miami, will be in the lineup and receive plenty of opportunities. Return sophomore Jonathan Williams must prove he can hold onto the football. Arkansas may use bruisers Patrick Arinze and Kiero Small more than anyone expects and the Hogs establish a “downhill” running game and take some responsibility out of Brandon Allen’s hands.
Will Denver Kirkland start?
He may be the best offensive lineman to enroll at Arkansas since Shawn Andrews, and Andrews eventually started by the midway point of his freshman year. There is less ability at tackle now, sad to say. So yes, Kirkland will land a starting role early in the season. It will be easier to move Kirkland in than to reform some of the tackles (some who walked on) into run blockers.
What’s Arkansas’ strongest area?
The offensive guard-center-guard trio led by veteran center Travis Swanson will help the Hogs establish the inside running game early. Brey Cook at guard is ready to break out.
Where else is Arkansas strong?
Defensive ends. Fullbacks. Possibly at tight end.
What is Arkansas’ weakest area?
The Hogs will have maybe the smallest linebacking corps in the SEC. It would be good if most of these guys were large, great, speedy high school safety types like Randy Shannon converted at Miami into quick linebackers, but they are not. They are undersized linebackers. The returning sophomores, Otha Peters and A.J. Turner, will indoctrinated by fire out of necessity last year when the upperclassmen gave up. Martrelle Spaight, a juco newcomer, didn’t have a spring to get acclimated, but he’ll have to play. Anybody who can breathe, move and tackle will have to play.
What other areas are weak?
Safety. Offensive tackle. Wide receiver. Which brings up another point — how can Arkansas be so weak at wide receiver just one year removed from the Petrino era? What kind of recruiting was that? Oh wait, you’re asking the questions and we’re answering them. Sorry.
What area must improve immediately?
Arkansas had a ridiculous minus-19 turnover margin last season, worst in the country. The defense as a whole hasn’t forced turnovers at even a decent rate in several years. The one game Arkansas had the edge in turnover margin last year was the upset win at Auburn. One game out of 12. Bielema’s calling card is limiting mistakes — penalties and turnovers. That area alone could help turn the Hogs around faster than the needed talent influx, which will take more time.
Who will be the Hogs’ MVP?
Senior kicker Zach Hocker might help Arkansas win a couple of games it otherwise wouldn’t with his fantastic leg. Hocker seemed plagued with the same virus that invaded the whole program last fall, even being benched in the LSU game. But he returned stronger in the spring to prove himself again. Bielema prefers not to use a punter-kicker combo, but Hocker’s punting was fantastic in the spring as well.