State of the Hogs: Question Marks

What are the biggest holes to fill for the Razorbacks ahead of spring drills? Wide receiver, offensive line or middle linebacker?

There's still about one month before Arkansas spring football drills begin. Is that too far away to discuss the most important needs for the 2012 Razorbacks?

No, it's appropriate any day. It came up twice this past weekend at the opening baseball weekend at Baum Stadium. There was a different opinion both times.

Despite breaking in new coaches on defense and the key defensive playmakers seasons -- Jerry Franklin, Tramain Thomas and Jerico Nelson -- both started with offense, wide receivers and offensive line.

Wide receiver play is so important in a Bobby Petrino offense. Joe Adams and Jarius Wright made the bulk of big plays over the last two seasons as the Hogs won 21 games. There's no one on the current roster capable of stepping in for either one of them, said the fan.

How about Cobi Hamilton, Julian Horton, Marquel Wade, Keante Minor and perhaps some of the newcomers starting with junior college transfer Demetrius Wilson? New signees Eric Hawkins, Keon Hatcher and D'Arthur Cowan look to be high quality gets, too.

The other conversation started with losing Grant Freeman and Grant Cook in the offensive line. Replacing a tackle is never easy, but the Hogs are in much better shape than they were last season.

That type questions about the offensive line points to expectations, through the roof. This fan wasn't so much worrying about winning 10 or 11 games. The question was simple: Can the Hogs win the national championship without a big jump in offensive line play?

This offensive line struggled against Alabama and LSU. Can it improve enough to run block against those two teams. The running game will improve with the return of Knile Davis, if he's as good post surgery as he was in November 2010. The best I can offer is that he's come back from other surgeries.

What will help is another year in the system for quarterback Tyler Wilson. He said the game was slowing down for him in the second half of the Cotton Bowl. He'll take another jump in that regard as a fifth-year senior. There is nothing as valuable as a returning starter at quarterback in the SEC. It helps the run game.

No, my questions don't start with offense. I will be watching defense first this spring. Middle linebacker is the biggest concern. But the position on this team that I think will take the biggest positive jump is cornerback. If the Hogs improve there as much as I think, everything else will be easier.

Cornerback is huge in this era of the passing game. To have lock-up cover corners makes everything easier. Splitting the coaching in the secondary between two full-time assistants, Bobby Allen for corners and Paul Haynes for safeties, is going to improve both positions.

On paper, the loss of Franklin at middle linebacker looks like the biggest hole. He's been the leading tackler for four seasons. But for much of his four years, he had little help. The defensive line is improved. The next middle linebacker is going to have better players in front of him and on his flanks. He'll have an easier time than Franklin. He may not have to erase as many mistakes.

Who will it be? First in line will be the man who wins gym class and understands the new techniques assigned by linebackers coach Taver Johnson.

There is probably going to be film work and written material assigned over the next month to see who understands the scheme.

Signee A. J. Turner said in the Hawgs Illustrated recruiting special (printed Wednesday) that Johnson is demanding. The linebacker prospect from Lepanto said, "Coach Johnson said it's very simple, but that learning it isn't easy. He said that's the best way to explain it."

Turner, who will arrive this summer, said his first time with Johnson last month on his official visit provided some clarity on the environment in the meeting room.

"I was wearing a cap," Turner said. "Coach Johnson said, ‘This is your first time, so you didn't know. No caps in my room.' Then, he said, ‘I want you sitting in your chair in a linebacker's stance with all eyes on me.' I loved that. I told him, ‘Let's go. I'm ready.'"

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