Arkansas football players reported for fall camp Wednesday. The newcomers open the first day of practice at 3 p.m. Thursday on the intramural fields. The veterans follow a few hours later. What needs to happen for the Razorbacks to make a championship run?
That's a question as big as the Ozarks, perhaps as big as the Alabama game set for Fayetteville on Sept. 15. Huge. It's bigger than the Olympics to Arkansans.
I'll take a crack at it with the top 10 most important issues for this Arkansas team as John L. Smith prepares to watch his first workout as Arkansas head coach. To no one's surprise, the top half of this list is all defense. So here's the first Top 10 list of the season. Here are the top 10 most important things to watch as practice begins:
1. Defensive Playmakers
That's a huge area, but that's where the losses were biggest on this Arkansas team from last year. And that was not an area of strength even last year. Can the Hogs replace Jerry Franklin, Jake Bequette, Jerico Nelson and Tramain Thomas? Those were the top tacklers and made most of the key plays in an 11-2 season.
That may not be as tough as some might think because these were key players, but perhaps not great players. One of the keys is the move by Tenarius Wright from defensive end to inside linebacker and the way Eric Bennett emerged in the spring as a leader and playmaker at safety in the absence of Thomas. Also, Ross Rasner played as much -- if not more -- than Nelson last year. He's going to be a force in the Paul Haynes scheme.
One of the keys is Haynes, the new defensive coordinator. He appeared to be getting a handle on the poor tackling at linebacker and safety that seemed to plague the Hogs the last few seasons. If that's the case, the loss of these key players won't be as severe.
The big question might be defensive end where Bequette was one of the SEC's top sack producers the last two seasons. Austin Flynn and Trey Flowers may be part of the answer, along with the emergence as Chris Smith as a force. The Hogs expect a fine crop of defensive ends in the 2012 class to help here.
2. Depth at Linebacker
The Hogs may be better at linebacker than most suspect. Alonzo Highsmith and Wright are solid players. Highsmith might be in the top half of the SEC's weakside linebackers. But there is just not much proven depth behind them. The fact that coaches see a great need to find out about true freshman Otha Peters says plenty.
Jarrett Lake emerged down the stretch in the spring as a capable hand at outside linebacker. Matt Marshall had good days in the spring, too. Braylon Mitchell and Terrell Williams have promise, but have yet to take charge at that spot. Robert Atiga seemed to improve the last two weeks of spring ball, too. Walk-on Austin Jones had productive days, too.
But are these top flight SEC linebackers? Can they make plays in the downhill mode that new linebacker coach Taver Johnson preaches? That's what needs to be answered early in fall camp for this defense to improve.
3. Depth at safety
The Hogs are fine at safety in the front line. Bennett and Rasner (when he's not at outside linebacker) are solid SEC players. But Rasner isn't going to be at safety all the time. Jerry Mitchell and Rohan Gaines competed for that second safety spot in the spring and showed fine promise by the time the spring game arrived.
I liked the Haynes concept of cross training the safeties at both spots. That increases depth, but do the Hogs have enough bodies at safety? That's the position where shoulders give out in a long SEC campaign. Thomas did give out in the middle of the year. His shoulders were pulp by the second quarter of the Alabama game. He was good by the end of the year, but his situation points to the depth issue.
The Hogs need to find a couple more safeties in two-a-days. Haynes mentioned it last week. That's his position and he knows the Hogs aren't deep enough there yet.
The issue on defense the last several years has been missed tackles. That was what Haynes focused on in the Cotton Bowl preparations. The tackling seemed to improve against Kansas State.
Players said it was a change in fundamentals and focus. They said the bowl practices featured new tackling drills and corrections from a different perspective by Haynes. Linebacker coach Taver Johnson added to that in the spring after he came over from Ohio State, too.
It should be interesting to see how that carries over to two-a-days. I'm guessing it will keep getting better. One of the known factors will be the simplicity of the defense. Johnson likes to say what he asks of the linebackers is simple but not easy.
If you can get to the first two weeks of practice (and they are open), check out tackling. It's something that will have a large role in how this defense plays this year and if that part of the team can catch up to the offense.
5. Offensive Line Competition
This is a solid part of this team. Both sides of the ball are solid in the trenches. Are the Hogs as good as Alabama and LSU here? Probably not. But the gap is closing.
The key is how the competition plays out in the offensive line. You can roll defensive linemen. Who starts and how many play isn't a critical issue in the defensive line. You can play as many as can be productive. That's not the case in the offensive line. The mesh has to be perfect on offense up front.
So I want to see how the competition sorts out up front in the offensive line. It needs to happen early in camp so the top five are familiar with each other. There were four or five tackles in the mix in the spring. Grady Ollison added strength in the summer and might be one of the five now. Jason Peacock, David Hurd, Brey Cook and Chris Stringer are the others in the mix at the start. Who emerges as the top two tackles in the first two weeks of camp is a key here.
6. Wide Receiver Depth
This probably is one of the primary concerns in the minds of most fans. It's not as much for me. I think numbers at wide receiver were really good the last two years when the Hogs went with a lot of four and five wide looks.
That's not necessary with the good play at tight end and the depth at running back. The Hogs can and will use more two-back sets and multiple tight end looks. They will playing two and three wideouts more than four and five this season.
But there still needs to be good depth behind Cobi Hamilton, Julian Horton, Javontee Herndon and Keante Minor at wide receiver. Maybe Chris Gragg splits out wide from his tight end spot a little more. But they need more to run this offense just in practice, much alone in games. The same guys can't take all of the practice reps.
Who will emerge from the talented new class? I think it will be Demetrius Wilson and Keon Hatcher. Wilson is a junior college transfer with a fine reputation as a route runner. Hatcher is stronger in the lower body than most freshmen. But how do they hold up in the grind of a Division I camp? That's the big question that remains to be answered.
7. Punt Returner
Joe Adams was perhaps the nation's finest punt return specialist. It's hard to believe that the Hogs will find anyone quite of his ability. But if they do, it could be the difference between a good season and something great. Dennis Johnson has been great as a kickoff man. He'll get a look early. So will Wilson, who was good in junior college.
I will be watching to see who runs to that spot when special teams work begins each day. The first priority in finding a punt return man is finding someone who wants the job. Those who sprint to that area of the field are generally the ones who like it. And it's not for everyone.
I might be putting this a little low on the list. It's a big deal. It's the only real question mark on special teams unless you think tackling has been an issue in the past (and it has). But I think that's going to improve with the work Haynes is doing with the back end of the defense and it won't be a problem.
This covers a lot. Perhaps Tenarius Wright moving to linebacker is still in this category, but I think Haynes and Johnson are beyond that. Wright is going to be a linebacker.
What I was thinking about was the Kiero Small to linebacker and Brandon Mitchell to wide receiver deals. Both are going to get time there this fall and could play there in the early games. And that's when John L. Smith will decide whether or not it's something that will fit for the Alabama game or not.
I think Small will help in situations at linebacker. He can do the same things at linebacker that he does in short yardage situations at fullback. The fullback has to take on the linebacker and the linebacker has to take on the fullback. The fullback takes the linebacker to the ball and no one understands that better than Small.
Who among the incoming freshmen defensive ends can help at either defensive tackle (for the future) or at linebacker (now)? Taiwan Johnson might get a look at outside linebacker in fall camp. He's displayed fine lateral movement in the summer. That's something to check out in the first week of fall camp.
9. John L. Smith
There will be a lot of eyes on John L. Smith every step of the way this year. That's the nature of the position. Where will he spend his time at practice. I think there will be more time with the defense than Bobby Petrino. That's probably where he needs to spend time, in my estimation. That's why I listed so many defensive items at the top of this list.
I doubt the organization part of practice will be a lot different than past seasons. The script might match last year's first day on Thursday more than any might imagine. Still, it will be interesting to see how he interacts with the coordinators and the players, too.
Most will be watching to see if Smith challenges coaches and players. Or will he just let them do their jobs? We may never know how deeply he's involved in the planning or game plan. But we can watch these early workouts and decide how he's going to command practices.
10. Player Leadership
I believe this is one of the many strengths of this team. If this was a top 10 list of strengths, this might be at the top of the list. From Tyler Wilson to Knile Davis to Cobi Hamilton to Tenarius Wright to Alonzo Highsmith, I think this team has great attitude and leadership. I think that will be obvious in fall camp for the days that are open. It was in the spring.
But it still is something to watch for when the heat is around 100. Can they push their teammates through the grind of fall camp? I think it's going to be a wonderful part of a fine 2012 season.
I think John L. Smith is stepping into a good situation because of the leaders on this team. I think that's one of the reasons he wanted the job. He trusts them and knows they will play hard for him.
The coaches I've spoken with this summer are impressed by the excitement within this team. That's the part that outsiders that may downplay the Arkansas chances for a big run this year don't understand. I'll be surprised if there isn't good leadership on the field Thursday when the Hogs hit the practice field.
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