How do you rate this Arkansas football team as far as strengths from top to bottom? It was a good exercise for an early-summer morning.
There are probably no surprises here. I like the quarterbacks, running backs and what's up front on both sides of the ball. Here's how I see the Hogs as we move into June.
The good news is that there aren't a lot of places where freshman are required to play early. This might be the shortest list of needs for an incoming class at Arkansas than in a long time. And one thing to remember, the difference between the top of this list and the bottom is the closest it's been in quite some time, too.
1. Quarterback -- Tyler Wilson is a fifth-year senior and is the returning All-SEC quarterback. He needs to continue to polish his ability to change plays and enhance the running game. But he is the top strength on this team. And the depth behind him is pretty good, too. Brandon Mitchell gives some variety with ability to run, but he is adding to his game under Paul Petrino. Brandon Allen would be a close second to Mitchell. He's not the runner that Mitchell can be, but he is a gifted passer and is deep into the process of perfecting the offense. He's got a ways to catch up with Wilson, but he appears on the way to being a top level SEC quarterback.
2. Running Back -- This is deep and talented. Knile Davis is the leader of the pack, but there is depth and versatility with Dennis Johnson, Ronnie Wingo and Kody Walker and Kiero Small. There is more talent in the incoming freshman class. One of the youngsters might be able to help if injuries hit this position. This is a strong position and is only rated as number two because quarterback is so well stocked and of such great importance. Davis is as good as any runner in the SEC and may be as fine an athlete as there is in college football, the perfect combination of size, strength, speed and attitude. Don't under estimate what having Davis back can mean for this offense.
3. Defensive Line -- This spot is deep and talented. Quarterback and running back are ahead in this list, but not be a large amount. These top three are supreme strengths for what should be a good team capable of making a run towards an SEC West title. Byran Jones, Robert Thomas, Dede Jones, Alfred Davis, Trey Flowers, Chris Smith, Austin Flynn and Colton Miles-Nash are solid SEC players. And there is more help on the way. The defensive line class that will join this crew is top notch, perhaps the best group of these type pass rushers ever signed in one Arkansas class. My favorite tandem in the spring was Thomas and Flowers. I loved watching them compete. Both are very good players. This was the first spring for Flowers, but you would have never guessed that by the way he played. I think the ceiling for Flowers is high.
4. Offensive Line -- There is nice mesh of talent, experience and depth here. Travis Swanson, Alvin Bailey and Jason Peacock are solid SEC linemen. Swanson is an All-SEC type at center. But the good news here is that the Hogs have more numbers and better competition than in a long time. They shuffled players around in the spring looking for the best combinations. Brey Cook, David Hurd, Tyler Deacon, Marcus Danenhauer, Mitch Smothers, Chris Stringer and Luke Charpentier all can play. This group is well ahead of where the Hogs were at this time last summer.
5 Tight End -- This is another strength. Chris Gragg is an All-SEC type. He is poised for a breakout senior season and will play in the NFL. Austin Tate is solid and will be used a lot. He emerged as a consistent threat at receiver. He has good hands and is a solid blocker. Gragg and Tate will be used together. There are two or three others who have the potential to be good SEC tight ends this year. Demetrius Dean had a great start to the spring, but as the playbook got deeper he struggled. But he'll have a summer to learn and should be a factor this season. He is very talented.
6. Wide Receiver -- I'd probably list this spot even with tight end. Cobi Hamilton, Julian Horton, Javontee Herndon and Keante Minor are solid. All have made plays in the SEC. Hamilton is an All-SEC type. There is concern because of Marquel Wade's legal issues. There is belief that he still could be with the team in the fall. But coaches would have to rate dependability as an issue. He's had on-field problems (ejection at Vanderbilt) and off-field problems inside on year. The one negative here is that depth has been weakened by graduation and off-field issues. A top freshman class with five wideouts will have to provide help. Keon Hatcher is probably the freshman most ready to help because of a nice weight room background. JC transfer Demetrius Wilson should also play early and might be a boost to the kick return game.
7. Kicking Game -- With Zack Hocker at placekicker (and he's a fine punter, too) and Dylan Breeding at punter, the Hogs are solid here. The only reason this area is not listed higher is the loss of Joe Adams at punt returner. The likely replacement is Marquel Wade and his situation is clouded with off-field issues. Dennis Johnson is the school's all-time leader in kickoff return. Knile Davis is begging to join Johnson in that duty and it would rate as two of the SEC's best. Several of the incoming freshmen were standout kick returners. JC transfer Demetrius Wilson might get a shot at the punt return job. D'Arthur Cowan, Eric Hawkins, Nate Holmes are others who might get a look here.
8. Outside Linebacker -- I list this is a decent strength because of the experience and talent with Ross Rasner. He was a regular -- logging as much time as Jerico Nelson -- by the middle of last year. He blossomed in the spring as he tried some safety to go along with the star position in the Paul Haynes scheme. I think Jarrett Lake and Matt Marshall can also play this position in base situations. Lake really had a nice spring and could have a breakout year.
9. Safety -- Eric Bennett looks to be the top safety in the back end. He understands the scheme and is talented. He's a fast, physical player who can run down mistakes. The question here was at the other safety. Rasner can play there some, but he'll be the nickel linebacker a lot of the time. That meant the Hogs had to find someone else. Two emerged by spring's end with nice potential. Jerry Mitchell, tried at corner and safety the last two springs, blossomed and may have been one of the big comethroughs of the spring. He's a 6-1, 219-pounder with speed. He looks like an NFL safety. By spring's end, he was playing fast and tackling well. His cover skills improved. Rohan Gaines looks like he will stick at safety after giving corner a try last fall. He exploded as a tackler. This is still a position that would not be labeled as a strength, but Paul Haynes got this group to step up over the projections as a liability. Haynes always had good safeties at Ohio State. If he's worked his magic on this group of safeties, it could be a major plus for this team. It did appear that tackling was improved.
10. Inside Linebacker -- This was the question mark in the spring and still falls down the list a little because of depth concerns. But coaches seem to like where they are with Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius (Tank) Wright. Highsmith missed the spring with surgery for a torn pectoral tendon. But he is a solid SEC player. Wright makes the move from end to mike linebacker. Coaches and teammates think that's a major plus for the team. He played that spot in high school. He might not be perfect in pass coverage situations, but he might move to end in nickel situations when the Hogs will likely go with more defensive backs. Depth is not perfect here, but Austin Jones, Terrell Williams, Braylon Mitchell and Robert Atiga seemed to improve in the final two weeks of the spring. Freshman Otha Peters will get an early look to see if he can help in August.
11. Cornerback -- This is an improved area, but there is a reason it falls this low on the list. It's still the position that needs the most help as far as talent and depth. Darius Winston and Tevin Mitchell are both experienced and have good ability. Winston may be close to realizing his vast potential. Mitchell was bothered by a hamstring injury in the spring and that underscored depth issues. That left the Hogs with a walk-on at that spot in several scrimmages, although that was a player who may have been the surprise of the spring. Senior Kaelon Kelleybrew made play after play in the last two scrimmages and may be in the rotation. This is a spot that will need help from the freshmen. There were three corners signed and all of them will get an early look.
State of the Hogs: Strong Ratings
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