State of the Hogs: Building Blocks

Arkansas isn't starting from scratch despite a seven-game losing streak. There are some building blocks for the future as the Hogs finish up their first year under Bret Bielema.

Bret Bielema and his coaching staff are on the road recruiting. They are trying to find more building blocks like they secured last winter. Some of those are on the field playing now and more are on the redshirt list for the first-year Arkansas football coach.

What constitutes a building block? My definition would be a player who can help Bielema win games going forward. Basically, a building block is a player who fits in his system and can lead to a winning program down the line.

There are numerous players that fit that definition. Some are hard to see because there aren't enough players around them to highlight their abilities. That goes for quarterback where Brandon Allen has some skills, especially to operate in a ball-control system that requires the right pre-snap moves. That is one of his strengths.

Allen's arm appeared strong and accurate enough in the spring and in fall camp before a shoulder injury ruined his sophomore season and put the development of the offense behind the eight ball during the toughest stretch ever attempted by an Arkansas team.

Some will want to debate whether Allen is the man for the future at Arkansas now. However, that will be settled in the spring when Rafe Peavy, Austin Allen, Damon Mitchell and AJ Derby will get equal shots at unseating him. Allen will benefit from a year in offensive coordinator Jim Chaney's offense in that battle.

That's not the key area for discussion now. It's how much help will the Arkansas quarterback have to go forward in the spring? How many building blocks are there on offense, defense and special teams? Certainly, more are needed.

Do you have to be a freshman or sophomore to be a building block? Can you be a junior like defensive end Trey Flowers? For the sake of definition, let's include Flowers, perhaps the acknowledged leader for next season, assuming leadership starts with seniors. There aren't a lot of seniors-to-be for this discussion anyway, so inclusion highlights the pressure on the bottom end of the classes where someone like freshman linebacker Brooks Ellis has to be a leader because of the nature of the position and the void there.

Offensive tackle Brey Cook, cornerback Carroll Washington and outside linebacker Braylon Mitchell are the others in the starting lineup from the junior class. Martrell Spaight is a junior college transfer who should benefit from his first spring and should be classified as a nice building block.

We'll start with the true freshman now starting. That would be guards Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper, tight end Hunter Henry and Ellis. The running back position is a building block situation. Sophomore Jonathan Williams and true freshman Alex Collins, listed as joint starters, are already standouts.

True freshman Korliss Marshall fits as a building block type, no matter where you want to put him. He's played at running back and as a kick returner and made plays in SEC games at both spots. He wants to play safety and his speed is sorely needed there, too. He's exactly the type player that fits as a defensive playmaker because of his great speed and physical maturity. He's gained from the 180s to well over 200 since he arrived in the summer.

There are several linemen on both sides of the ball that qualify as nice building blocks. Redshirt freshman Darius Philon has taken over as a starter at defensive tackle with Robert Thomas out with a broken leg. He's already a fine player and will anchor the interior. Third-year sophomore DeMarcus Hodge is another who is ready to step in as a starter. He's made plays the last two weeks and is firmly in the rotation. Horace Arkadie, another third-year sophomore, has been mentioned as making a move over the last three weeks, two of them open dates. He provides more depth in the defensive front.

The good news for defensive line coach Charlie Partridge is that there are other young players that qualify as building blocks up front. Brandon Lewis, JaMichael Winston, Deatrich Wise and Taiwan Johnson are all redshirt freshmen who have begun to make plays as they learn the techniques Partridge teaches at end and tackle. They are developing nicely in Ben Herbert's strength program. They have speed and range to play in the SEC. True freshmen Ke'Tyrus Marks (tackle) and Tevin Beanum (end) have also been given praise by Bielema for their developmental work in scrimmages during the two open weeks.

The offensive line has some bright spots. Obviously, the focal point has to be center where Travis Swanson graduates. He's started every game the past four seasons and rarely been off the field. His backup this season is senior-to-be Luke Charpentier. There will be challenges for Charpentier there, according to line coach Sam Pittman. Redshirt freshman Cordale Boyd is highly regarded and has played some center. Boyd has to be considered a top building block. Whether or not he can help at center, or needs to play guard with either Kirkland or Skipper moving to tackle would be a good question.

Kirkland and Skipper were not the only highly regarded offensive linemen in the last class. Reeve Koehler was in that class of players, too. The 6-4, 340-pounder sustained a dislocated knee cap in camp and that hindered his development. He should contend for playing time. He could also make a run at center, but most likely will end up at guard.

Henry has some good company at tight end. Mitchell Loewen is a junior-to-be with starting experience this season. He's played a lot as Henry's backup, primarily as a blocker. He was a tackle before Bielema arrived and perhaps is still in the developmental stage in his life as a tight end. Jeremy Sprinkle has ability with an impressive frame. He's played some, although he's probably in the doghouse after spending the second half of the Ole Miss game in street clothes after a personal foul.

Loewen has been a regular on special teams, an area that has some building blocks. Zach Hocker will be the hardest to replace, an almost sure-thing as a senior placekicker. The good news here is that the deep snapper, Alan D'Appollonio, returns for his fourth year as a starter. That doesn't seem like much, but you don't notice a snapper until he's gone. Senior-to-be Sam Irwin-Hill returns after a solid year as a punter.

There are some building blocks in the secondary, although there hasn't been a lot of positive news there all season. The Hogs will lose Eric Bennett at free safety and return everyone else. There is some talent lurking in the wings to help the likes of sophomores Will Hines and Rohan Gaines. True freshman D. J. Dean has gotten some snaps of late at corner and nickel. He has speed, size and a physical presence, but hasn't made a lot of plays just yet. He could be a building block.

The hope is for help at safety from both Marshall and another true freshman De'Andre Coley, still on the redshirt list. Coley draws praise from secondary coach Chris Ash about once a week. Bielema raved about Coley during both bye weeks. He's gained about 15 pounds since his arrival and is a fierce hitter, something missing on the defense for several seasons. True freshman Alex Brignoni missed the season after surgery in August for a hairline fracture of the pelvic bone. He was a ball hawk at safety during his prep career at Fayetteville. Another bright spot among the developmental players has to be true freshman fullback Chris Jones, a 5-11, 240-pounder who Bielema said "sailed right past" backup Patrick Arinze in the battle to take over for captain Kiero Small.

Ellis is the central piece to the puzzle at middle linebacker. And for that matter, for the defense in general. If you are going to play a 4-3, it starts at middle linebacker. Ellis has started the last two weeks with good results. He makes plays close to the line of scrimmage, something the Hogs have not done at his spot in several years.

Is there any help returning at linebacker? Are there more building blocks? Spaight will be a senior. He'll benefit from his first spring at Arkansas. Mitchell has developed some over the last half of the season and recently returned to his natural spot on the outside, on the strong side. But the Hogs need comethroughs at linebacker with someone else, possibly Otha Peters or A. J. Turner. This is the position where the Hogs can do themselves the most good on the recruiting trail.

And, while they are at it, Bielema and staff needs to pick up some more wide receivers where the top returnees are Keon Hatcher, D'Arthur Cowan, Demetrius Wilson (out for the year with ACL surgery) and Drew Morgan. Hatcher might be the closest thing to a building block. Cowan displayed promise in camp before a broken foot required surgery. Wilson was going to start before he blew out a knee.

The Hogs need some help, but there are some pieces to move forward. The good news is that the Hogs are a year into the transition with their coaches and their program. But make no mistake about it, there are some building blocks already on campus.

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