State of the Hogs: Better Depth

Arkansas needs more talent, but there is better depth as the third week of fall camp begins. Can Bret Bielema's downhill style take control against a brutal SEC schedule? That's one of the questions HI.com publisher Clay Henry tackles in this commentary.

Arkansas coach Bret Bielema's first Arkansas team is better in some ways than the 2012 version that stumbled through a 4-8 nightmare because of injuries and lack of direction from the top.

The part that is better is simply more depth, but it may not be top of the line SEC talent that fills that two deep. Recruiting mistakes leave the Razorbacks lacking in overall talent, most notably great speed at the skilled positions on offense as Bielema and a wonderful veteran staff square off against the toughest schedule ever assigned an Arkansas team.

Those that I trust who have seen Arkansas practice this August -- and remember only one scrimmage was open to the fans and media -- think this will be a well-coached, fundamentally sound team with good talent. But, it lacks great quickness and speed, say some with tremendous football backgrounds.

One of those who has seen the Hogs is former Oklahoma State coach Pat Jones, now a radio analyst in Tulsa. He said on the record Monday that he was not wowed by the Arkansas talent. But he did think there is solid talent in a freshman class, but -- among other thoughts -- how much can a freshman offensive tackle do in the SEC?

Everyone who has seen the Hogs -- and that goes for old coaches, NFL scouts and others -- thinks they will win some games. But most think the ceiling is somewhere in the neighborhood of seven based on the schedule.

Just as it was suspected when Bielema put together his staff last winter, it's clear now that it's a great one, not just good. The Hogs will be fundamentally sound, technically sharp and coached to play tough, physical football. Antiseptic play has been coached into these Hogs after the 2012 team played loose from the way it cared for the football to penalties and to the kicking game.

It's just that the Hogs lost some real talent over the last two years and that hasn't been totally replaced in the skill positions yet. Among the players who are gone from the last two years: Joe Adams, Jarius Wright, Greg Childs, Cobi Hamilton, Chris Gragg, Knile Davis, Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo. In effect, graduation gutted the Hogs of the fastest players on the team.

As far as skill replacements, the Hogs have added some good players with speed for their positions in the last two classes in Hunter Henry, Jeremy Sprinkle, Jonathan Williams, Alex Collins, Melvinson Hartfield, Drew Morgan and D. J. Dean. They have also helped themselves in the lines with Denver Kirkland, Dan Skipper, Reeve Koehler, Cordale Boyd, Deatrich Wise, Brandon Lewis, JaMichael Winston and Taiwan Johnson. These are quality SEC talents, but it sometimes takes a bit for young linemen to develop into stars.

The linebackers improved with the arrival of Martrell Spaight and Brooks Ellis in the 2013 class, but they are both just getting started. Spaight may be a beast and it's been awhile since the Hogs had a thumper at linebacker.

There are a few senior stars on the 2013 Hogs. Travis Swanson, Kiero Small, Chris Smith, Byran Jones, Robert Thomas and Jarrett Lake would look good on about any of those top 10 SEC rosters. Juniors Trey Flowers, Brey Cook and Braylon Mitchell appear to be on the verge of becoming coveted SEC talents.

The secondary, abused over the last several years, does look deeper and that may pay the biggest dividends. Safeties Rohan Gaines and Eric Bennett continue to earn praise from defensive coordinator Chris Ash, their position coach.

Gaines has developed into a consistent hitter, but he's undersized and whether or not his body can hold up in an SEC grind even Ash wonders. Bennett may be the wild card in the back end. He underachieved last year, but flipping from free and strong safety in the old scheme (that was right/left oriented) along with two bad ankles made for a leaky defense.

Cornerback has been a question mark for several seasons, too. Is Tevin Mitchel mentally over his concussion and surgery last fall? How will Will Hines, Jared Collins, Carroll Washington and Dean hold up around him. Too many teams attacked Arkansas corners the last three years without much of an answer as far as attacking the ball in the air. Is this improved?

The offensive line seems to be coming together under Pittman, hailed as a dynamite coach, recruiter and positive influence on players and the coaches around him. Butch Davis, the former North Carolina head coach now with Tampa Bay as a consultant, said last week that Pittman is as good as any that he's worked around in 37 years of coaching. Davis said he's a great technician and developer of O-line talent along with being a "pit bull in recruiting."

Pittman smiled at those words after practice Monday night. He said, "Oh, Butch is a good friend and he likes me a lot. The pit bull comment I've heard from him before."

Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge is also championed as a great trench mentor. He has a history of fielding fine defensive fronts and all think he's doing that at Arkansas now. He's got good talent and solid depth up front.

What will the coordinators bring? Chris Ash on defense and Jim Chaney on offense appear to be good hires, matching those line coaches for ability and veteran know how.

Ash has low keyed the development of the defense. He said the goal is daily progress and he's happy with that. If there are players he raves about (along with consistent praise for the entire defensive front), they are Lake and Gaines. If those two turn out to be playmakers, that alone might improve a defense that seemed to make most of its tackles well off the line of scrimmage the last several years.

The thing to watch early is the line of scrimmage. These Hogs will have to win battles up front to win games. Can they play downhill? That's the goal of a Bielema program, on both sides of the ball. It's tough to assess improvement there when you play against yourself, perhaps why some are not sure exactly what to make of the 2013 team, even those that have seen them in practice.

Are they better against the opposition than they are against themselves? Do stalemates in practice become wins in games against teams that can't match them in the one-on-one combat in the trenches? No one is willing to say that just yet, but it may well define the progress made in year one under Bielema.

How far has the offensive line come in catching up to the defensive front? Can this O-line under Pittman get some creases and pop Williams and Collins free? That's a big question mark, especially if Bielema decides to go with Kirkland and Skipper at tackle instead of the current starters, David Hurd and Grady Ollison. Or, and this scares some old O-line coaches, what if he decides to play all four. Generally, it's believed that continuity and mesh are attained in the offensive front only by sticking with a five-man group that gets all of the snaps.

The kicking game should be better. Zach Hocker is poised for an outstanding senior year, perhaps handling punting, field goals and kickoffs. Bielema and Partridge, who coaches kickers, have a plan to rest him two days a week to keep a live leg just that. The return game is still developing. Nate Holmes is the most elusive of the candidates, but can he field the ball consistently? Wideouts and defensive backs appear to be the most likely candidates.

There are no questions that the depth is better, but only if the Hogs avoid the series of injuries that kept coming all of 2012.

Tight end Austin Tate was the most versatile of the tight ends and is down for at least the next six weeks after shoulder surgery. Demetrius Wilson, a starter at wideout, is lost for the season with ACL surgery. Linebacker Otha Peters, cross trained at two linebacker spots, is lost for five or six weeks with a broken arm. Some say Tate is the biggest loss, others point to Peters because of the less than perfect depth at linebacker.

No matter how you view that, injuries in camp are always tough. But the real issue is whether or not this is the end of the injuries, or the start. These Hogs can weather three, especially if two return by SEC play. They can't continue to absorb these kinds of blows even with what clearly looks like better depth than 2012.

It's hard to go 2,000 words without mentioning quarterback, but I've done it. It probably points to the easy-to-see style that Bielema likes where quarterback isn't asked to make all the plays. He's still asked to make lots of plays and many critical decisions. It appears Chaney has done a good job of developing Brandon Allen's confidence and knowledge of the system. But Allen is still an unproven commodity.

That points to the issue that Bielema addressed last winter when talking about what has to happen for 2013 to go well. He needs development at the key positions that make decisions play after play, quarterback and linebacker, particularly middle linebacker. Allen is the guy at quarterback and Austin Jones seems to be settling in at that spot on defense. Both are smart and sharp, a good thing to have as a decision maker.

Chaney made a good point earlier in camp about the need to continue to give Allen repetitions. The key to good quarterback play is total knowledge of formations, how a defense adjust to them and just getting a feel for what is going to be an advantage for every play against 40 different defenses.

"That's what you need with young quarterbacks, repetition," Chaney said "Some get it by just being in the film room. Some get it only by being on the field and seeing it live. Some need games. Every one of them is different. I'd say Brandon is somewhere in the middle as to how fast he picks it up. He's getting it, but he needs every rep we can get him."

Allen is in a good system. It's downhill running that occupies ends and linebackers for a split second, making play-action and bootlegs effective. He's good on the run. He throws out of movement. And there is good news about this set of receivers, they do catch the ball. Drops have been hard to find. It appears the players like the quarterback and that is worth a lot as far as offensive chemistry.

I'm still not ready to pick a number for 2013. Maybe I won't ever be ready with only one practice to set my mind on certain issues. And there is just so much to wonder about how this team is going to look against this schedule.

It's clear on several issues, Bielema understands his job. He has been masterful in the way he's built a staff, recruited in the offseason both the 2013 class and jumped to a good start with plenty of four stars in both 2014 and 2015 classes. Talent is going to improve at Arkansas over where it is now. But, first this 2013 team is going to have to battle through a long list of opponents with more talent.

Arkansas has won before when it's been over matched. But it's tough to do that consistently. How far can great coaching take a team? We are about to find out.

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