Commentary: Compare 2012 to 2013

Sometimes when a question is asked, the answers turn into a commentary. That's what happened on the Insiders message board. The question this time was about comparisons between 2012 and 2013 and it's worth capturing in a column.

The question popped up like so many on our "Insiders" message board. Some are easy to answer. Others take some time to do it right.

This was one of the last group, a good thought-provoking question worth some time. It's bottom line type stuff. And there are some good thoughts that come from that type of question, worth developing into a front-page commentary.

Here's the question: Last year Arkansas was a preseason top 10 team with national title thoughts, then the bike wrecked. So how does this team compare, position by position, coach to coach, chemistry to chemistry, depth to depth?

I bit, maybe not quite as deep as you could go, but the overview is all here. And, it's the type of stuff we all wonder. Where is this Arkansas team and what position is it in the grand scheme of program development.

It's all good, from where I sit. I see good things happening everywhere. It's amazing, actually.

I didn't give this team much chance last December, but that was before a handful of recruiting grand slams, including Denver Kirkland, Hunter Henry and Alex Collins, along with others. Those three are going to make a huge difference at some point, maybe sooner than later.

But there is more. I see HOW the turnover ratio improves. It's attention to detail in the coaching, not just talk. I see HOW Bret Bielema and staff gets close to his players -- while also pushing them to be uncommon. That's his catch word, not mine.

I appreciate the thought behind the question. It has become a little easier to answer in the last 10 days because of several positive developments, as noted in the many stories written since the first day of practice about breakthroughs in many areas.

I'm not ready to make a season prediction yet, but I do see how this team might win six or seven games. I just don't feel comfortable yet. I want to learn more about the linebackers and cornerbacks. Will this team get to the first game with all hands on deck? That's the big thing that went wrong early last year and the team really never recovered.

Just remember, the schedule is over-the-top tough and it's easily one-game tougher than last year with Florida replacing Kentucky.

Defensive line is much improved. That's the key to this season, that and a better offensive line than expected. The defensive line was good last year, but it's been galvanized by Charlie Partridge, the defensive line coach.

Bielema's style of putting one man in charge of all four positions to provide another coach on offense for tight end is very good. I like that a lot, most notably because Partridge is that good.

Losing Tenarius Wright, to try linebacker, off the defensive line last year was a blow. He was a good end. I worried in the spring that it could backfire and noted that it's sometimes tough to take a very good player and move him.

I thought, this might be a problem at defensive end, and it was. A rotation with Chris Smith, Trey Flowers and Wright would have been much better, a strength.

I think a rotation with Smith, Flowers, Deatrich Wise, Brandon Lewis and JaMichael Winston will serve this bunch well in the SEC. All will be needed.

Same goes in the defensive interior where Robert Thomas is having a fine camp. Byran Jones sitting out with a minor injury helps the development and mesh inside with Darious Philon, DeMarcus Hodge, Horace Arkadie and Taiwan Johnson is huge (and no pun intended).

Depth appears much better in most places. Just remember what happened at tight end when Chris Gragg went down? There are five or six quality tight ends now. There is no comparison between staffs, starting at the top. Linebacker is still the question mark to me. It appears to be MUCH improved, but depth is still an issue.

Cornerback talent is a question to me, but depth is better. Offensive line is better, but experience is an issue. Quarterback lacks experience compared to last year, but Tyler Wilson's concussion messed up the middle of the season for him and the team.

Running back lacks experience, but last year's group fumbled way too much. That appears to be corrected. Zach Hocker appears to be improved, although Dylan Breeding was a good punter. How Hocker holds up doing all three would be a question mark.

The concussion to Tyler and the injuries to Kiero Small, Tevin Mitchel, Chris Gragg, Eric Bennett, Tenarius Wright, Kody Walker and Alonzo Highsmith were devastating blows because of depth issues. No team can survive those kind of injuries to that number of key players, so staying healthy is still important in 2013.

It appears chemistry is outstanding for 2013. The key to chemistry is what happens with adversity. There has been none so far. Coaches have done a nice job of restoring confidence and building that chemistry, helped by a large senior class.

As Jarrett Lake said Sunday, the big difference in the team right now (mentally) is stability. The head coach is here for the long haul. And, as he correctly noted, the new building is here for the long haul.

Sounds kind of funny to put those two together, but I think I get his point. Both will help stability in chemistry and recruiting and so far these seniors are grateful to be a part of it.

The key is the early nonconference stretch. Get wins there and everything holds together nicely without much worry. Lose one (or, and I know, this is a horrible thought) or two of those, chemistry and "buy in" might be tougher to achieve as they fight through the horrible stretch of those four-game SEC beasts in the middle of the schedule.

Winning early is the key. Momentum does wonderful things. I've heard some coaches minimize it and point to technique and fundamentals and hard work as the keys. Well, what happens if you have both? Right now, it appears there is a wonderful dovetail in those two areas right now, momentum and attention to detail and fundamentals.

Here's one thing to ponder as you remember last year. Do you think Jim Chaney (with Bielema hovering nearby) will know to hand off a few times if he needs to protect a lead in September with an inexperienced quarterback under center? Paul Petrino didn't get that kind of guidance from John L. Smith.

But, as they say, it's early. Stay tuned.

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