This team is close to the top, but not quite there in many areas. I think it will continue to improve and here are a few reasons why. This is not meant to be an overall position by position breakdown. I'll add some other thoughts later. But here's a look at some things that stick out in mind one day after the end of the regular season.
One note before I get into that, my thoughts on where Arkansas is are no different today than they were two months back after the Alabama game. I thought that day and wrote it that there were two clear teams that were in a league by themselves nationwide, Alabama and LSU. Everyone else is playing for third. I believed that then. I see it more clearly today than I did then. Arkansas is as good as anyone else in the country.
There are not many programs that are going to win 10 games in back-to-back seasons. Arkansas still has a chance to make it 11 before the final book closes on this year. That is real and possible. That should be the focus, along with the sting of losing 41-17 to No. 1 LSU.
Indeed, the Hogs may be third best. They are clearly third best in the nation's best conference with says a lot, especially this season. Whether or not the rest of the country recognizes doesn't matter to me. I know it.
The most important thing is to continue to improve and not slip back to those others. I think that's exactly what this team will do over the next few months, improve and continue to build both in recruiting and development. Here are some other thoughts on the specifics within the team.
The key to next year will be improvement at quarterback, offensive line and linebacker. We must continue to get better in these three areas. Some might also say secondary, but I think we did improve in the secondary as this season rolled along, particularly at cornerback. Still not great there, but I think the young talent is better with what we have on campus right now.
Quarterback is a position that had a decent season, but not great. Some of the problems with the QB had to do with development and ability in the offensive line. I believe that will improve this season and help quarterback more than any position. This will enable the team to better handle defensive fronts with great, great talent like Alabama and LSU. That was a huge part of the two losses.
Linebacker has not been a strength over the past four seasons. There just hasn't been enough proven linebackers on this team. True linebackers. Alonzo Highsmith played hard, but he was in his first season of Division I football without a spring practice. That's a tough situation to put him in, but that's where we were at linebacker. Jerry Franklin, in my opinion, would have been great at outside linebacker, but was out of his depth in the middle. He gave us everything he had, but was not playing his true position and it showed over and over. Terrell Williams, Robert Atiga, Brock Haman, Braylon Mitchell and Matt Marshall are going to get a chance to prove what they can do this spring. I'm especially interested to see what Atiga can do and whether he lines up at mike or will. Will is his natural position. He's grown to a big mike and that's where we need him the most.
Offensive line has come a long ways from the start of the season, but it was not up to the challenge against a big, fast, quick defensive front on Friday. Sam Montgomery wreaked havoc with his stunts, twists and variety of moves. He was outstanding. There wasn't one man who he beat, but usually entire sides of the line. You have to switch mans when a DL puts together a series of moves like that and we didn't account for him with the right switching communication. I don't know if it was noise level that they couldn't hear each other, or just poor communication period. But we didn't get the proper switches for Montgomery and others throughout the game. LSU was able to get pressure without blitzing much because of that failure in communication.
It will be interesting to watch the offensive line this spring and what happens with a nice group of young offensive linemen. Mitch Smothers, Brey Cook, Marcus Danenhauer, Chris Stringer, Austin Beck, Grady Ollison and Luke Charpentier will get a chance to make a step forward. I'm especially fascinated with what Ollison can do with a little more bulk on his frame. He's the most athletic of the bunch. He has the speed and quickness to play tackle in the SEC. If he can get overall strength and size added to his long frame, he might be something special. We must replace Grant Freeman and Grant Cook from the O-line, a tackle and a guard. I think some of these young players are more athletic than the two Grants. I was pleased with what Freeman did in his one year to play. He had a nice year for a one-year starter at a very tough position in the SEC. But having said that, I think we will be better at that spot in the future, especially in the running game. Peacock had his ups and downs. The best thing you can say about where he is now is that he's been through the battles in the SEC and will benefit from it. He must continue to define his body and learn his trade. I've always thought of him as a guard and wondered if he could move there if one of these young tackles blossoms. Maybe we see that happen this spring.
As they say on Black Friday, these are the big ticket items in my mind. There are so many other things that will develop over the next five months in the weight and strength program with a very talented recruiting class that has wide receivers, defensive backs and a fine quarterback. They will all get a chance to shine in bowl practices and again in spring drills.
I can imagine that the quarterback race will be thrown open again. That's just Bobby Petrino's nature. That doesn't mean Tyler Wilson deserves to be replaced. He doesn't. While he was far from perfect this season, he earned the team's respect as a fighter, a leader and a playmaker. He can improve and he's going to be asked to play better and more consistently by a coach who is tougher on quarterbacks than anyone who has ever worked with a passer.
One thing that I recall from the Depth Chart Arkansas program on ESPN is that Wilson's favorite player of all time is Brett Farve. He sometimes plays with Farve, roams around and plays with a gunslinger mentality. It's nice to have that ability at times, but I am guessing that the coaches try to take some of that out of him and coach him to another level that could take him to a rare spot on the mantle reserved for the top Arkansas quarterbacks. He's capable of that, with a good offensive line.
Running back could be fun to watch next year. Knile Davis should be back. What he can do in bowl practices might determine a lot. There's part of me that thinks he might be close to returning. But even if he doesn't, he should be fine for spring and have a great junior season. Dennis Johnson needs competition to push him to another level. He can be a fine player, but his style of trying to take on tacklers sometimes results in fumbles. He's definitely loose with the ball. He needs a spring to re-learn that he has to prepare for hits by covering the ball with two hands. Kody Walker will get a chance to prove he can play with the low pad level that is required in bowl practices and in the spring. He does have SEC ability.
Wide receiver is a position that will take a hit, but there is talent remaining. Some very good young receivers have had a chance to learn under some great ones. They'll get a chance to fight for starting spots this spring. Cobi Hamilton will be the bell cow. Keante Minor, Marquel Wade, Javontee Herndon, Julian Horton and Mardrecus Humphrey are all good players who know the system now. But I also think you may see some fantastic freshmen emerge within that group when the next class arrives. Certainly, there are some great ones in that class and may be more before it's over.
I picked this team to go 11-1. I believed that was possible and still do even with the results of yesterday's game fresh in my mind. LSU was clearly the better team, but there was a period in the game that if we had played a little better -- the last five minutes of the second quarter -- the game was in our hands. There were some little mistakes that added up in the last five minutes starting with a pass that Jarius Wright didn't catch down the middle on third-and-4 and then the punt that wasn't directed to the left sideline by Dylan Breeding. Add to that a fumble by Dennis Johnson when we could have regained the momentum before halftime and things got out of hand in the second half when we could muster but three points. A great team can't be beaten without perfect play. By halftime, the emotion and momentum was clearly on the other sideline and we were playing uphill the rest of the game.
Back to my 11-1 prediction, I thought Arkansas would outplay 10 teams and they did for the most part. I thought there were two, Alabama and LSU, that were more talented. But I thought there was a chance that one of them would have some adversity that would take one of them down to our level. That almost happened in the first month of the season against LSU. But somehow the top brass at LSU worked its magic and kept that team together. I say the top brass because I'm sure it took a few political moves to restore all of those talented players to "go" status in spite of some ugly situations off the field. Those are situations that probably assured a national championship for the Tigers.
Meanwhile, Arkansas had to endure a situation that no team should face. More importantly, no family should ever have to go through the loss of a teenager. It something that I can't imagine. I fret over one day of high fever. I can't fathom getting the phone call that Danny and Michelle Uekman got Sunday. Nor can I imagine what making that phone call does to a coach. I'm still trying to figure out all that happened this week. Obviously, no one can figure it out and that's what causes all of the pain.
Some of us are going to fret about this football game for a few days. But I challenge you to channel some of that energy into thoughts for Danny and Michelle. They will bury their son Monday.
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