Jim Harris: Why Should Razorback Fans Be Excited?

Razorback Fans Have High Expectations 

But Are They Warranted?

Simon Lee’s been gently urging me all these weeks for what he calls my “patented season preview,” which he also will add for additional carrot that “it’s always dead-on.” Well, your humble servant could never claim to be that accurate on preseason expectations, but lately we put the full blame squarely on Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema managing to underachieve, or at least fall short from some weird, unexpected reason, year after year.

Yes, even with all the questions surrounding a new quarterback and with replacing running back Alex Collins, I expected 8 wins last season from an Arkansas team that Bielema boasted had the best defensive line he’d ever been around. Truth was, had new quarterback Austin Allen not played way, way, way above his head in September while getting little to no protection, and had Rawleigh Williams III not played way, way, way over his head in coming back from a broken neck mere months earlier, Arkansas would have been lucky to win three games in 2016. As it was, with Allen flinging it around amazingly when he was left upright and with Williams defying the odds to lead the SEC in rushing, it was perhaps the work from Bielema and his staff that turned a 9-win season into 7-6. 

The year before, Bielema and crew looked one month behind everyone in September, leaving on-paper winnable games on the field against Toledo and Texas Tech, and turned a possible 10-win banner season into 8-5. Before that, how about two for-sure wins left on the field due to kicking game whiffs, including what would have been a monumental upset of Alabama, and at least one if not two other blown efforts at Mississippi State and Missouri? So, what could have been Coach of the Year type work turned into 7-6. 

And really, should we not have known that maybe Bielema produces less than expected when he manage to not win a SINGLE GAME in SEC play in his debut season?

Wow, this is already not heading where I had hoped – and not likely the direction you Dear Reader who seek Hog sugarcoating were hoping as well. I will happily concede that maybe it’s just me, that I’m oblivious to what’s really going on in Razorback fan land, as I’ve got many more irons in the fire these days than tuning into the daily drivel on Drive Time. But I don’t sense a lot of eager anticipation to the start of the 2017 Razorback football season.

Granted, Florida A&M of the Football Championship Subdivision is not the kind of opponent anyone who has followed the Hogs for 50-plus years ever expected to be the one and only game in Little Rock in a season (though it does follow the one and only game vs. Alcorn of the SWAC last year). Only if UA athletic director Jeff Long would partly break UA tradition and give Arkansas State fans the most supreme of disses by scheduling UA-Pine Bluff as a going-away prize to the Little Rock Razorback fan faithful at War Memorial Stadium.

At 6:30 a.m. Thursday morning before the opener with FAMU, however, a dozen or so vehicles were already lining up to begin the tailgating festivities on the golf course adjacent to the stadium. The opponent may suck, but the party will always be a classic at War Memorial Park. 

Otherwise, I get a feeling of “who cares” about it all.

You would think Arkansas Razorback fans would have that “we can win 10” feeling again, what with returning one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks in a year nationally of great quarterbacks from coast to coast. Austin Allen, when he wasn’t beaten near to death due to his slow and inept pass blocking up front last year, performed at an All-SEC level. Yes, he also panicked down the stretch in ways reminiscent of his big brother’s struggles early in his own career. Maybe that’s a symptom of a season of beatdowns. Anyway, the disasters at Missouri and in the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech, when Arkansas managed to lose 17- and 24-point leads in the second half, were not as much the fault of the most porous defense ever for a winning-record Razorback team, but fell more at the feet of Allen’s second-half leadership in those games. Allen made poor decisions, committed costly turnovers, and the offense – the only area of the team giving it much of a chance to begin with – put up second-half goose eggs. Missouri played the second half with nothing to lose, Arkansas played it not to lose. Against Virginia Tech, there seemed to be a simple letting go of the rope when things suddenly went south in that game, and Arkansas was fortunate to only be outscored 35-0 in the final two quarters. Allen and his offense coughed up the ball four times, and every turnover had that look of “trying too hard,” if that’s possible.

And yes, it is possible. Arkansas has to try harder against most of its opponents. It’s an Arkansas tradition, especially now in the SEC, as it was all those times against Texas in the SWC. Bielema has not recruited Arkansas to walk into any stadium with a decided edge in ability against anyone in the SEC. However, this year, the Razorbacks are not at a decided disadvantage in most matchups, save for maybe the Alabama, LSU and Auburn games.

Let’s throw the road games at Alabama and LSU out as probabe losses for this team, on paper, based on the lineups today. Lots can change, though. Arkansas can gain momentum in September, a belief that it can play with anyone, and who knows where the opponents will stand if a quarterback or a key running back goes down.

Same, though, goes for Arkansas. The Razorbacks have already seen the retirement of Rawleigh Williams due to the recurrence of neck issues, and without Austin Allen for any stretch, and without returning back Devwah Wahley (602 yards rushing as a freshman), and Arkansas’s season suddenly looks disastrous. 

But where’s the lack of excitement for everything new about these Hogs? Veteran, sure-handed receivers are gone, and the one returning mainstay (senior Jared Cornelius) is battling back issues, but a vast amount of speed, size and potential exists among the new receivers being called upon starting Aug. 31. Will they be on the same page with Allen as were Keon Hatcher and Drew Morgan? That certainly remains to be seen. But there is a better amount of talent in that unit that simply needs playing time.

The one area of a team that always improves with experience is its offensive line, and that’s what Arkansas is hoping for with the four returners from last year’s starting five up front and older depth behind them. Center Frank Ragnow is the leader, and is unquestionably a talent to play on Sundays. But what of the others, Bielema’s favored Hjalte Froholdt at left guard, or the so-far underwhelming though highly recruited Brian Wallace at right tackle? When Bielema addressed a crowd in Little Rock last week on the team, about the only area that got no name mention was the right side of the offensive line, and there were other hints in the way of player shuffling that the right side is still in question. We saw some of this last year throughout the line in preseason camp, and any more disarray this early has to be discomfiting, especially to the starting quarterback.

New tight ends will have to emerge, because Bielema’s offense seems to run through the tight ends. A shaky kicking game the past two years has to be solid when the offense bogs down. Cole Hedlund is said to be better in his placements, so we’ll see. Big games come down to field goals often. And when the Hogs have to punt out of trouble, will anyone be able to now that Toby Baker’s graduated?

Another question: Will offensive coordinator Dan Enos establish a better running game in 2017? Of all of Arkansas’s shortcomings last year, and defense surely was No. 1, a paltry running game that could manage just 160 yards per game, and was an utter failure in clutch third-and-short and fourth-and-short calls, must improve both in short yardage while adding an additional 50-70 yards to the ledger. The clock control needs to return to the Bielema game plan to give the defense more time on the sidelines, where for two years it has performed best.

Bielema at that same Little Rock speech finally admitted that he knew Robb Smith was out and he was going to make big changes on defense in 2017 by game 8 last fall, long about the day after the Hogs were steamrolled 56-3 at Auburn. It probably wouldn’t have bothered anyone to have made the change after Game 5 when the Hogs let Texas A&M quarterback Trevor Knight run for 183 yards, usually right up a vacated middle of the field. Smith was a defensive coaching hero for the fanbase in his debut year, 2014 (though the Hogs still got smoked by Auburn and Georgia and helped gag other losses in the fourth quarter with mystery blown secondary coverages), but 2015 and ’16 were years he could best leave off his resume now that he’s trying to rebuild it at Minnesota.

Meanwhile, Paul Rhoads moved up from secondary coach to coordinator, where he excelled at Pittsburgh and one season at Auburn before a head coaching stint with perennial loser Iowa State, where he was dismissed after five seasons and available to join Bielema last year. Rhoads’ background is the 4-3 defense, but the Hogs are going with a 3-4 look, which is all the rage anyway in dealing with spread offenses. It’s also all the rage where programs have not found enough quality defensive linemen and where it’s easier to find athletes to man the back eight. That’s where Arkansas is as a program, sort of.

Sophomore McTelvin Agim is probably ready to live up to his 5-star high school reputation at the Hogs’ new defensive end position (it will not be the DE of the past, like where Deatrich Wise Jr. and Jeremiah Ledbetter toiled last year). But if the 3-4 is to work, senior Bijhon Jackson must have the year expected of him when he was a prep star being recruited out of El Dorado. If Jackson and his backups can command double-teams up front, the defense can work against both the run and pass. If the nose tackle is ineffective, teams will be able to run all day on Arkansas, as they did last year. Keep an eye out on T.J. Smith and others at the end opposite Agim in the 3-4. Also, keep an eye on Arkansas using one of its new outside linebackers as a bigger end and playing ostensibly a 4-front, depending on the situation. But, most importantly, see if Arkansas can muster up any pass rush in the new formation.

Yes, most teams with 3-4 alignments are loaded with linebackers. Behind the Arkansas front 3, there are linebackers both with plenty of potential and some still with questions about their qualifications for SEC football. Athletically, junior Dre Greenlaw, if his foot stops breaking, can enjoy this new look as one of the inside linebackers. Sophomore De’jon Harris is maybe the most talented of the linebackers in the middle of the field, though he gives up some height from the prototypical middle man on most SEC teams. Can if, if nothing else, close up the middle of the field in passing situations, an area that was exploited time and time again in the past two years.

Meanwhile, much has been expected of Randy Ramsey, an outside rusher in his off-and-on career at Arkansas. He didn’t have the size for the old DE position; but does he have the speed from LB to make that big of a difference? Duane Eugene, a senior, has been forced into action as a reserve, but is he good enough as a near-every-down player to help. 

The secondary resembles the linebackers in that there are players with vast potential and others who strike fear not in the hearts of opposing offenses, but of the Razorback fanbase. It’s still too recent to forget how charred the secondary was at Missouri, repeatedly beaten over the top and only helped out by bad hands by Mizzou receivers. Gone is Jared Collins, the steady if unspectacular senior from last year’s crew, but returning is junior Ryan Pulley, who improved enormously from his shaky freshman appearances to a solid sophomore season. Opposite him is senior Henre Toliver, who in the past two seasons has yet to resemble the same player we saw as a freshman (and maybe that was due to the better players around him). He’s due, if nothing else. You hope his awareness displayed as a freshman wasn’t a mirage, and that being stuck on inside receivers was not his best fit the last two seasons. 

Kevin Richardson, who came as a walk-on, has blossomed into a senior team leader and can play any of the secondary spots after missing all but one game last year with injury.

But the recurring theme under Bielema in his going-on five seasons seems to be question marks at safety, and you simply can’t have question marks at safety in the SEC. Observers of August practices believe junior Santos Ramirez (whose lack of speed as a corner dropped him to lower SEC offers and others coming out of Shreveport Evangel high school) has taken that proverbial next step, is listening to coaching and not playing his own way, thus finding himself out of position a lot, and will be a plus. The other safety spot was all but handed to Dre Coley coming into August and he promptly gave it back to demoted senior Josh Liddell – the book on Liddell has always been “decent speed, OK coverage skills, bad tackling and run support”). The coaching spin was that Liddell had earned the promotion; if we didn’t already have four years of hearing Bielema spin, we’d almost buy it. As it is, safety remains a concern until we actually see the improvement on the field.

It’s unlikely we’ll be able to judge much anything on the field vs. FAMU, who has already played a game and won 29-7 over Texas Southern (why didn’t Jeff Long schedule Texas Southern?). Arkansas should win the game by no less than 39 points (Vegas actually thought Arkansas was 50-point favorites, with seems ridiculous considering the Hogs are nowhere to be found in Top 25 polls). The starters should not be out on the field in the second half if Arkansas is up six touchdowns. That means lots of freshmen should get some playing time.

Those frosh will play anyway, likely by attrition, if the two-deep chart means anything. Out of Arkansas’s first two teams, 12 players are listed as freshmen (either redshirts or “true” first-year players). A couple in the secondary freshmen such as Chevin Calloway should get early time. If the safety play continues to be second-rate, the coaches should not hesitate to get freshmen on the field, move Richardson to a safety and lock down the back side. Of course, a true expert like Rhoads won’t need to be told that by sportswriters and the fans, and it’s doubtful he’ll wait.

Why Robb Smith kept doing the same thing the last two years, we’ll never quite know, but we can guess. Bielema claims he stepped in to save the day before the wipeout of Florida in early November, following the debacle at Auburn, but one week later the defense was back to being gouged, making LSU’s Darius Grice look like Darren McFadden and making walk-on quarterback Danny Etling look like LSU national title QB Matt Mauck. Right after that came surrendering 42 points and still winning at Mississippi, blowing the game vs. Missouri, and Bielema fooling almost no one saying he was staying the course with Smith.

Somebody’s head had to roll. It will happen again if this season is worse than an 8-win year. It won’t be Bielema’s; Jeff Long locked him into a long-term deal with a ridiculous buyout that doesn’t drop into seven digits until after next season. But this is Bielema’s team, and make no mistake about it, Rhoads may be the coordinator, but it’s Bielema’s defense. The offense has had a lot of positives about it under Enos, but those fourth-quarter collapses seem to trend more toward Bielema’s style at Wisconsin, shutting it all down at halftime and hoping to hold on. Arkansas doesn’t have enough talent to do that, and let’s not forget, that all falls at Bielema’s feet as well. 

A two-deep with loads of freshmen seems to point to two areas: recruiting following Bielema’s first and second seasons was below par for SEC football; the last two classes have been upgrades. The most recent class might have some big surprises. Arkansas has only 16 or so spots to fill for next year’s recruiting class, meaning there are quite a few juniors and sophomores now who have played. 

The hope throughout the program is that this group of seniors, led by Ragnow and Allen on offense, and whoever steps up on defense (Richardson, Liddell and Toliver, perhaps?) will prove to be a 180-degree turn from last year’s apparent lack of leadership.

Because, we can go back and point to all those failings of Bielema’s first four seasons, the near misses that could have made his 25-26 overall record much more appealing, and note that ultimately, the players play the games and decide it. Those were basically the words of the late great Frank Broyles as told by one of his players, Jerry Jones, at his recent memorial service. Broyles was maybe selling himself a little short; coaching does matter. Sideline decisions under pressure do matter. Keeping a team controlled and focus when it all goes suddenly south, that matters. But if the players have enough ability, they can fight through together, especially when the right leadership is in place. Great Arkansas teams have followed a mediocre season and with very little expected of them.

That’s what has always defined the best years in Arkansas football. And, on paper, this team should find itself with similar or better ability in 10 of their 13 games. I think Razorback fans would be excited again about Razorback football, and even in playing games like FAMU in Little Rock, if the Hogs managed a 9- or 10-win season again.

Razorback fans on gameday hosting tCU


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