This is the one-year anniversary of what turned out to be one of our top features of last season's run to the Sugar Bowl, our weekly Top 10 Things to Watch. It's a fan favorite and something that this writer has always enjoyed producing. I was reminded earlier in the day that it was time to trot it out again on the eve of the annual Red-White football game.
There shouldn't be any surprises here. I started with offensive tackles, the spot that head coach Bobby Petrino said is where the Hogs needed to make strides this spring. That's the spot where the Hogs are replacing DeMarcus Love and Ray Dominguez, a pair of tackles with seven years starting experience. Love was one of the team leaders. Brey Cook, Grant Freeman, Anthony Oden and Jason Peacock look like SEC players, but they are still learning all of the fine points. Don't judge the season on how they play Saturday.
And if you can't keep your eyes on those four offensive tackles play after play, perhaps you can rely on your DVR to tape the ESPN broadcast of the 3 p.m. start. You can go back and forth, checking out the two sides. That would be a fun watch later.
Here's some specific things to watch, starting with the edge of the trenches. Here you go:
1, Offensive tackles.
Can the four offensive tackles get any stalemates with the four defensive ends. That's a matchup of supreme talent on both sides of the ball. But it's also the least experienced position (offensive tackle) versus one of the most experienced spots (defensive end). I'd be surprised if the Hogs consistently get wins from their young offensive tackles. Jake Bequette had a good practice Friday (although there were no pads) against Anthony Oden. I'm not sure that anyone can block Bequette and Tenarius Wright, the other starting end.
Tyler Wilson and Brandon Mitchell have both had good springs. Wilson has gotten the most snaps with the first team. You'd have to list him as the number one at this point. But Mitchell has proven that he's a viable option with impressive moments. He hasn't been as good as Wilson this week, but the most important day of the spring is Saturday.
3, Strong safety.
This is one of the few positions that the spring game could decide the starter -- at least for the first day of fall camp. Eric Bennett has worked with the first team all spring. Elton Ford has been with the twos. But of late, Ford has been the one making the bulk of the plays between the two. It's been Ford's most consistent spring. He's been much better against the pass, his weakness. He's been just as good against the run. Defensive coordinator Willy Robinson said it's been an even spring and the Red-White game will likely decide the competition. Either way, the Hogs will need both. Strong safeties rarely make it through a full season unscathed.
4, Ronnie Wingo.
Perhaps one of the fastest Razorbacks has turned into one of the tough ones, too. Wingo's strength has always been his superb speed, but he hasn't always run like a 230-pounder. He has this spring. With Broderick Green now out with ACL surgery, could Wingo turn into a short-yardage back. He's run like one at times this spring and that's a major development. It could be that he gets a taste on the goal line in the Red-White game. Will he run with a lean in the deep, dark, inside alleys? That's something to watch Saturday afternoon.
5, Tight ends.
Can any of them be consistent blockers. You will see plenty of them. Chris Gragg is the best as far as the passing game. He's long and fast and has great hands. Watch for his blocking? He hasn't proven to be an every day blocker, although that part of his game has improved this spring. But the Hogs often play two and even three tight ends, especially in short yardage situations. The other options are Austin Tate, Garrett Uekman and Denton Simek. They will all get their chances at tight end, H-back and fullback. All have improved this spring. Are they ready to replace D. J. Williams and Ben Cleveland?
6, Robert Thomas.
Give yourself a treat. Watch the big defensive tackle for a few snaps. He's impressive. The junior college transfer is the kind of talent that SEC rivals Alabama and LSU have had for years at inside tackle. He's 330, but he has the feet of a back. He's still learning all of the run fits. But he'll whip some linemen Saturday afternoon.
The safeties and linebackers have improved their tackling this spring. There have been few missed tackles in any of the scrimmages and these are the same backs that regularly slipped tackles the last two springs. Jerry Franklin has been challenged to step up into gaps to make tackles and he's better, but that's still something to watch in the Red-White game. How do the backup middle linebackers tackle. Braylon Mitchell and Tyler Gilbert have had impressive moments this spring, but haven't played the scheme consistently. How will they tackle Saturday?
8, Boundary cornerback.
That's a spot where the Hogs cleared out the depth to give Jerry Mitchell a try. He's got a big body, more like a strong safety or outside linebacker. He was treated rudely by the wideouts to start spring, but he's won plenty of battles of late and proven to be a solid tackler. Does he give up anything deep in the Red-White game. Petrino said they tried to attack him in one of the scrimmages, without a lot of luck. De'Anthony Curtis is the backup at boundary corner. He was on offense at this time last year. Curtis has worked extra with a graduate assistant after almost every practice this spring. He's improved in a big way in the last five practices. If this position steps up this season, it might be the last piece to the puzzle.
9, Field cornerback.
The three key players at this spot are Greg Gatson, Isaac Madison and Darius Winston. Gatson has been the surprise front runner. Winston has battled a pulled muscle in his leg. Winston missed some time, apparently for academic reasons. All three have speed and ability. Gatson has always tested among the fastest players of the team, but has not been a consistent tackler. He's played with more courage, according to Robinson. He's also played the deep ball better in the air. No doubt, all three will get their chances in the Red-White game. No doubt, all three will be tested by this great group of wideouts.
Is there any place in the country with more wide receivers? Quinta Funderburk tried to leave the team midway through spring drills. He was out for the better part of a week. The interesting thing is that the 6-4, 205-pound true freshman with 4.4 speed wasn't a big concern for many fans. That's speaks to the long list of talented and experienced wideouts. Everyone knows that Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Cobi Hamilton have a spot in the rotation next year. Julian Horton, Maudrecus Humphrey and Javontee Herndon have made big plays all spring. Marquel Wade has closed the gap on those three after spending the fall at a prep school. Funderburk has made a few catches this week. He'll get some snaps Saturday and he's an impressive athlete. But he's just one of the guys in this fine group.
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