After 14 practices it's time to write about what I know and we don't know -- or what we want to find out -- about Bret Bielema's 2014 Arkansas football team.
I know it's better than the 3-9 team of 2013 when things improved slightly at the end of the season with near misses against Mississippi State and LSU.
First, some things we know after watching most of 14 practices, with the finale coming in the Red-White game set for 1 p.m. Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Bielema has set it up as the "first team against the world." We'll call it a mini Top 10 of knowns:
What We Know
1, Brandon Allen is the clear leader of the football team. He will likely be one of the captains. He's far and away the best quarterback on the team, ahead of younger brother Austin and true freshman Rafe Peavey, a mid-term arrival. Brandon's arm is stronger, his decision making faster and his ability to run more of the passing game concepts from offensive coordinator Jim Chaney has been clear this spring. There has been more work on the passing game than run game this spring, weighted as much as 80 percent to the pass in the practices I've seen. There has been heavy focus on third-down situations.
Allen was asked if that means the Hogs won't run as much. He said there's nothing going to change in the culture of the Arkansas team. It'll still be a pounding type scheme, but there is more versatility in the passing game.
2. The secondary is improved and there is more depth. Robb Smith, the new defensive coordinator, isn't afraid of press coverage. In fact, he embraces it as a staple in his scheme, still a 4-3. But he's shown some development in the secondary packages, dimes and nickels, with strong safety Alan Turner, the seventh-leading tackler in the SEC last year with 97, moved to inside linebacker in certain looks. Backup strong safety TQ Coleman has played the strong linebacker in the base, giving more blitz and coverage possibilities against spread teams.
3. Cornerbacks have emerged as a solid part of the defense, really a stunning development. Carroll Washington, who wandered through last year as a JC transfer learning college offenses and coverage schemes, blossomed as a top flight corner. He's been special at times. Tevin Mitchel had his best spring. There's also hope that there are three-four-five cornerbacks who can play in the SEC. The Hog may not have had one in the past three or four years. So that's a dramatic change.
4. Tight ends are now fully developed as a playmaking position in Chaney's offense. If you'll remember, Hunter Henry and Mitchell Loewen, the top two tight ends with Austin Tate early last year, had never played the position. Henry was advertised as the nation's No. 1 tight end coming out of Pulaski Academy, but the truth was that he played outside in a flexed position in a spread offense, not as an in-line tight end. He was bothered by leg injuries last year. He's full speed now and developed as a blocker. Loewen was a converted tackle, out this spring after winter knee surgery.
Good depth has emerged behind Henry. Jeremy Sprinkle has developed as a big-play threat on the outside and has given hope that he can block SEC ends. Converted quarterback A.J. Derby blossomed over the last three weeks of spring. He made big catch after big catch, often in traffic. He could be one of the big surprises of the spring. Alex Voelzke has a role, too. He's a physical blocker. He doesn't have the athletic ability of the other three, but has size and good hands and understanding of the position.
5. Running back is a position of depth and strength. Jonathan Williams, Alex Collins and Korliss Marshall have proven ability. Marshall has developed as big-time speed guy, now equipped with overall knowledge of the position after locking into running back over the winter. Williams is his same, solid self. He's a team leader and a workaholic with plenty of ability. He's a north-south guy that doesn't go down easily. Collins has added some of that to his game, challenged to "press the hole" by coaches. He's added good weight and practiced this spring around 215 and does not appear to have lost a step. Kody Walker worked at fullback and running back, with good results. He provides versatility. Denzell Evans, the redshirt freshman, showed some ability and toughness, too. Chris Jones and Patrick Arinze may not be Kiero Small, but they can fill the role as physical blockers.
6. Dan Skipper doesn't back down to anyone. The 6-10 Skipper was never hard to spot with his head sticking above everyone, but the move to left tackle has made it easier to find him and track his highly agitated state. He doesn't back down from anyone and is prone to get in extra stuff. Bielema calls it playing through the whistle. Sometimes extra whistles are required. Defensive players will try to agitate him at times. And it's fun to watch it unfold. He's done well at left tackle, proving that he was a tackle's body in a guard's spot last year, just like line coach Sam Pittman said all along.
7. Denver Kirkland is a hoss. He's a little heavy after battling a hamstring injury throughout the winter, but it's always fun to watch him make his first two steps, amazingly quick for such a massive man. You get the idea that when one yard is the goal, it's probably going to be behind the 345-pound Kirkland. He may be the best athlete on the field, pound for pound. Well, he's a great athlete for a big man and I'll leave it at that.
8. Trey Flowers is a hulking figure now. He's around 285 and still can run. He has tree trunks for arms. Stay out of their way. He hasn't scrimmaged much, but there is a clear idea that he can dominate when they fight in team segments that lack only a tackle to the ground. He's a man that can make that quick step to cut off an Alex Collins when he shifts his hips for an outside cut. He looks like an All-SEC defensive end.
9. Wide receiver Demetrius Wilson is back. He hasn't scrimmaged, but he has his old speed after August ACL surgery. He'll be one of the leaders next fall. Keon Hatcher has had an impressive spring. Jared Cornelius, the mid-term arrival from Evangel, looks like Richard Smith, quick and fast, with very strong hands. He's a deep threat and quick off the line on that inside slant. He's made plays with one hand in traffic, speaking to the strong hands comment. Cody Hollister, the JC transfer, will help as a possession receiver. His routes are good and he can catch away from his body with a DB draped on him, a sign that he likes the ball over the middle in traffic. D'Arthur Cowan missed the first three weeks with academic issues, but is now back and is starting to fit in well. Drew Morgan has been steady and impressive. He's quick out of his breaks and his an acceleration to the ball that quarterbacks love. This is an improved bunch, but it would hard not to be better than what the Hogs had here last year.
10. There may be finally some middle linebackers on the Arkansas football team. Brooks Ellis and Otha Peters have grabbed the position. Both have had productive springs. Ellis started the last four games as a true freshman. He's light years ahead of where he was then. He can fill a hole with force and has about 20 pounds more on his 6-4 frame. Peters, hurt in his first two years, can tackle and plays downhill. That's a good position with depth. Randy Shannon, the linebacker coach, smiles a lot more these days. He's having fun coaching these guys.
What We Want to Find Out?
1. What does a Robb Smith defense look like. That may be the biggest thing fans want to see in the Red-White game. Does Smith blitz? Do they really play press coverage? Do the ends and tackles get up the field under line coach Rory Segrest? Can they force a turnover? How do they tackle?
I think all of this will turn out to be a positive, but no one has really seen it and it's also been against themselves. How much do you know when you are practicing against yourself. Cornerbacks go against your own wide receivers. Is that strength against strength? It hasn't been of late at Arkansas. You can get a false read on that kind of a matchup, but I think we will find out that there is much improvement in both these areas.
2. Do the Hogs have an adequate replacement for center Travis Swanson? Luke Charpentier started the spring there, but moved to left guard, another question mark, after three weeks. It's been Mitch Smothers the last two weeks with better results. Cordale Boyd has worked at both those positions, too, and will be the backup center in the spring game with Charpentier at guard. There will be more added to the battle at center and left guard when Sebastian Tretola, Frank Ragnow and Brian Wallace are on campus this summer.
3. What is the overall polish of the passing game? It has been the source of much work this spring. But will it show up in a game-like setting. Are the Hogs slick? What's protection like? It's been good with the ones, not so good with the twos. How much of the tight end game impacts formations in the passing game? I'm interested to see if it's three wide receivers, or one wideout and two tight ends as the most common look. I think it will be more balance with more wide receivers this year with more versatility in the wide game. But tight ends are still a potent weapon. Derby is kind of a wild card in all of this thinking. How far has he come?
4. I'm interested to just watch the overall team speed during the Red-White game. Is this team faster? They played like one of the slowest in the SEC last year. One of the focuses in the offseason is to improve the football IQ, simplify terms (especially on defense) to allow players to play at their fastest levels. I've seen some of that in practices, but I want to see if it transfers to the games. s there enough speed at wide receiver? What does Collins look like at top speed? Is there enough speed at wide receiver? What does Collins look like at top speed?
5. How is tackling? There has been several scrimmages, but not a lot of live tackling in other areas of practice. What there has been has displayed good tackling. But you often see a different speed of things in a game. Can the safeties consistently get these backs on the ground? I think it will be fine. But I want to see it.
6. What role is there for Duwop Mitchell, the converted quarterback? What is his body language and how is handling the trial at wide receiver/kick returner? Does it look like it's going to take. It seemed like he was a little more comfortable each day.
7. Are there more overall playmakers on this team? That goes for both sides of the ball. That's what this team ached for last year. There just weren't enough. There appear to be more this spring, but sometimes a game is a different situation. Will anyone emerge with a crowd in the stands.
8. What is the physicality like? I don't think this team has gotten anywhere near soft during this spring. But they have concentrated on the pass more than last spring. What does it look like in the trenches? Who wins that battle when the ball is snapped? I have thought the offensive line has had a good spring, but there are still strong men on defense with Darius Philon and DeMarcus Hodge holding their spot. Can Taiwan Johnson, a "lightish" tackle, stand up to a physical situation? He's likely going against the first team line.
9. How far have all of those maturing defensive ends developed? That's Deatrich Wise, Brandon Lewis, JaMichael Winston and Tevin Beanum. They all look the part. Can one of those help at tackle? Are they strong enough and nasty enough to battle a physical offensive line? These are all good looking players, giving the appearance of an SEC defensive end. They need to blossom. Will some of that happen Saturday? It would be worth spending some time with your field glasses looked on these guys. They are going to be hooked up some with Brey Cook and Skipper. Something nasty is probably in the works with these guys battling play after play.
10. Who shows up? I don't get into trying to figure out how many come to a spring game. But I can tell when it's a big crowd or a not-so-big crowd. It should be a good weather day. It's on TV so that impacts crowd, but I've heard a lot of buzz this week about folks wanting to see what's up with this Arkansas team. Is Allen better? Has press coverage really returned to the Arkansas defense?
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