Jim Harris: 11 Questions Now Answered By Razorbacks in 2013


bret bielema

For the first time in Bret Bielema’s head coaching career, he’s not taking a team to a holiday bowl game. In fact, he said earlier this week to reporters based in Fayetteville that his coaching staff will get 10 days off during the holiday period to recharge before a month-long rush through January leading up to national signing day. Recruiting will be the only way to change Arkansas’ predicament of having missed a bowl game for two straight years following 4-8 and 3-9 seasons.

The Razorbacks will carry a nine-game losing streak into next season’s opener at Auburn, which is playing for this year’s national championship early next month against Florida State. Bielema has been quick to note that only a couple or so plays separated the Hogs from the No. 2-ranked Tigers this season, and that Auburn also reversed a 0-8 SEC mark in 2012 to win the league championship this year. The players on this year’s team also can reflect back on three games (Rutgers, Mississippi State and LSU) that they led in the fourth quarter and let get away, preventing a bowl trip.

A bowl game would have meant no 10-day break for the coaching staff, but instead it would have allowed more practices for a team whose best players were freshmen and sophomores. Like a surprise 6-6 season did for Ole Miss last year, a .500 mark going into a bowl game would have made Bielema’s and the staff’s sales pitch to recruits that much more believable. As it stands, Arkansas may have a better-looking crop of commitments for 2015 than it does for the 2014 signing class. (This column was filed before Arkansas added more three players who will enroll in January.)

Four players have already been listed as leaving the program. That number may have to double if Arkansas plans to add 25-26 signees in this signing class and maintain the limit of 85 total scholarship players. Of the departing four, only linebacker A.J. Turner had shown some progress as a freshman last year before missing all of this season rehabbing a broken wrist bone (the other transfers named are defensive back Ray Buchanan Jr., linebacker Mike Tavarres and running back Nathan Holmes). Chances are, if any rising junior or senior is not part of the top 44 players, this coaching staff isn’t going to wait around for him to get there, though spring drills will allow for a last chance.

Told over and over that the 2013 season would be a struggle (and this was forewarned by some as much as two years ago because of recruiting failures by the previous staff), Razorback fans nonetheless gnashed teeth all during a 0-8 conference season. There’s nothing quite like actually seeing it play out in front of your eyes, even if it’s been forecast to be devastating.

No question it’s left a head coach with a 74 percent win percentage coming into his first season at Fayetteville a little more humble than he was at this time last year.


This is probably as good a time as any to review our “Eleven Questions” we put forth to readers in the preseason, along with our expectations, to see how they played out. It appears we had some pertinent issues on our mind before the season kicked off. In bold-face type are the questions as we wrote them in preseason.

Q: Can Brandon Allen be successful at quarterback?

WHAT WE LEARNED: The jury is still out, mainly in that Allen played all eight SEC games having suffered a separated shoulder diving into the end zone for a touchdown in a nonconference win over Southern Miss. He possessed only spotty accuracy downfield as the year progressed and remember, Allen wasn’t sharp against FCS-level Samford before he was hurt; but offensive coordinator Jim Chaney built a solid game-plan around Allen’s available skills in the near upset of LSU at season’s end. The question is, can Allen be a vertical passing threat? Nobody in the SEC thought so this season, at least due to his injury as well as Arkansas’ lack of a deep-threat receiver. Without one or the other next season, the Hogs may be looking at little improvement over the 2013 mark. Arkansas also will need to fill two key spots up front (center and left tackle) for pass protection; Allen was sacked just eight times in 2013, but he never looked good when flushed from the pocket. What is undeniable, though, is that the kid is tough and competitive.

Q: What if Allen doesn’t stay healthy?

WHAT WE LEARNED: Bret Bielema told us in the summer, when we asked about the possibility of not having an experienced backup for Allen, that he didn’t plan for situations that might not happen. (Seriously, he said that.) Contingency plans seem to be a must for most professions, but especially for an SEC head football coach. Likely, Bielema realized it was a problem but wasn’t going to say it then. Rarely does a quarterback, including Auburn’s Nick Marshall, not get banged around and knocked out of a game. It turned out, with Brandon Mitchell transferring last spring, the Hogs didn’t have a backup, as we suspected. A.J. Derby, a one-time linebacker at Iowa and a junior college QB transfer who came in as a walk-on, was thrust into action first to not lose the Southern Miss game after Allen went out with the shoulder injury. And he did nothing to lose at Rutgers; that was on the UA pass defense. But Derby, seemingly ill-prepared when Allen suffered a cut shin and exited for two series, was a fish out of water against Auburn with two turnovers in three plays, one in the red zone and the other setting up an easy Auburn score — a 14-point swing in an eventual 35-17 loss that also including a failure to score anything inside the Tigers’ 5-yard-line late in the half. (Remember, above, where Bielema said Arkansas was just a few plays away from beating Auburn, which is in the BCS Championship Game?)

Somebody must, one, compete with Brandon Allen in the spring at quarterback and, two, provide able backing next season, whether it’s incoming freshman Rafe Peavey or redshirts Austin Allen or Damon “Duwop” Mitchell. A.J. Derby could help alleviate the lack of depth at linebacker.

Q: Can Arkansas stop anyone?

WHAT WE LEARNED: The answer, once Arkansas moved into SEC play, was a big, fat “No.” South Carolina and Alabama both scored on eight of their first 10 possessions in mid-season,  mind-numbing blowouts. Mostly it was due to Arkansas’ horrid pass defense, but those teams also gouged the middle with the run game. Plus, Texas A&M outscored Arkansas and did it running the zone-read the entire second half. Even Florida, terrible on offense, rang up 23 offensive points. Things improved somewhat in November, but when the Hogs needed to stop Mississippi State and LSU (the Tigers were staring at 99 yards between themselves and the go-ahead score), they couldn’t. It’s hard to imagine Arkansas can correct all its problems in the back seven in this off-season.

Q: Will Alex Collins start?

WHAT WE LEARNED: It didn’t take long, and Collins became the Razorbacks’ first freshman since Darren McFadden in 2005 to top 1,000 yards on the ground.  However, Collins did not display a speed gear the likes of McFadden had, and he also had one devastating fumble inside the opponent’s 10-yard line when Arkansas was in position to beat Mississippi State. Sophomore Jonathan Williams surprised with nearly 1,000 yards on the ground as well, but it was freshman Korliss Marshall, who was working on the scout team before the A&M game, who eventually looked like Arkansas’ most likely home-run threat at tailback. He definitely proved his worth as a kickoff returner. But, alas, with only spot carries behind the top two, Marshall needs to play many more snaps and he’ll probably do that next year at safety.

Q: Will Denver Kirkland start?

WHAT WE LEARNED: Not only did the freshman from Miami earn a starting role when SEC play began with A&M in late September, he was joined by fellow freshman Dan Skipper, the 6-10 behemoth from Colorado that also got his hands on three opponents’ field goals. While penciled as a future tackles, they debuted as starters at the guard spots alongside veteran center Travis Swanson, who had an All-SEC and All-American season. They seemed solid all year against much older, stronger defensive lines.

Q: What’s Arkansas’ strongest area?

WHAT WE LEARNED: Arkansas’ running game was its strongest element on offense, though it still struggled at times with not enough of a passing threat. On defense, the end combination of Chris Smith and Trey Flowers played as advertised — the best part of a highly maligned unit. Younger defensive tackles were forced into the fray, such as freshman Darius Philon and Demarcus Hodge, and both came on strong, as well as backup ends Deatrich Wise and Jamichael Winston.

Q: Where else is Arkansas strong?

WHAT WE LEARNED: Tight end Hunter Henry had a freshman all-America season. In fact, after throwing to him six times in the season opening win over Louisiana-Lafayette, Arkansas found it hard to get the ball to him at times because of the defensive attention. He had two TD catches in the finale at LSU. Henry was everything the recruiting “experts” had said. Also, all the tight ends looked good early, though by the season’s end only redshirt freshman Jeremy Sprinkle was getting any throws when they didn’t go to Henry.

Q: What is Arkansas’ weakest area?

WHAT WE LEARNED: We didn’t learn anything we didn’t already know, forecasting Arkansas having probably the smallest linebacker corps in the SEC and having problems tackling or covering the pass. Returning sophomores Otha Peters and A.J. Turner were injured and didn’t factor. Juco recruit Martrelle Spaight wasn’t in the mix either except on kickoff teams. The only other area worse than linebacker was the defensive backfield, where the safeties seemed to spend most of the season confused, right up to the last touchdown surrendered, the back-breaking 49-yard pass by LSU in the final two minutes of its comeback win. The corners, who probably took a lot more of the blame when actually the safeties didn’t help, still were atrocious much of the year, whether tackling or in coverage. The best news was that strong safety Alan Turner vastly improved over the season, easily the most improved player on defense, and he was the team’s tackles leader. But that stat reveals yet another problem with the linebackers, who didn’t tackle enough or usually were bowled over downfield after a good gain by the opponent. Arkansas inserted true freshman Brooks Ellis into the linebacking starting corps late and he had to learn on the run.

Q: What other areas are weak?

WHAT WE LEARNED: We expected problems at receiver, despite all the wide receiver signees by Bobby Petrino over a three-year period that produced little of note. By the end of the season, though, seniors Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon were playing their best ball (and also picking up rushing touchdowns on reverses). Keon Hatcher battled bad hands along with the others at the midpoint of the season, but vastly improved over the last month. Nobody provided a dangerous deep threat with speed. That has to be a recruiting target in the off-season. Also, the Hogs lost Demetrius Wilson in the preseason to a knee injury, but he will be back in 2014. D’Arthur Cowan also came back from an August injury to help late.

Q: What area must improve immediately?

WHAT WE LEARNED: Our focus in preseason was on Arkansas’ ridiculous minus-19 turnover margin, third worst in the country in 2012, and the elimination of penalties. On the latter, Bielema did do that as Arkansas was among the least penalized teams in the country, through early on some critical 15-yard penalties hurt such as in the loss at Rutgers. As for the former, Arkansas improved by 10 in turnovers from 2012 to 2013, yet still finishing at minus-9 (23 turnovers to 14 takeaways). Personnel needs are most pressing: Help is demanded for safety, linebacker, cornerback and receiver. More depth, and definitely more stamina deep into games, would boost Arkansas’ chances in 2014; the Hogs were outscored 168-88 in the second and fourth quarters in 2013. And who replaces dependable fullback and leader Kiero Small?

Q: Who will be the Hogs’ MVP?

WHAT WE LEARNED: We predicted that Zach Hocker would be the MVP and would help Arkansas win a couple of games it otherwise wouldn’t have, and both the Mississippi State and LSU games seemed to be shaping up that way late before other mistakes doomed the Hogs (Arkansas lost to MSU 24-17 in overtime). Hocker simply didn’t get the chances, but his accuracy in his senior season was outstanding, and he concluded his career with a 54-yard field goal. But another surprise weapon turned out to be Aussie transfer Sam Irwin-Hill, whose punting from late September on was terrific. It was Irwin-Hill who pinned LSU at its 1-yard line late in the final minutes, only to see the defense give up a length of the field gut-punch. Irwin-Hill also converted a fourth-down pass and a fourth-down run on fake punt gambles during the season, though Bielema went to that well much too often and saw two momentum-killing failed fakes as well.

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