State of the Hogs: Optimistic Eight

Here's a front-page commentary from Publisher Clay Henry, an optimist at heart. It's early, but he thinks there may be a way to get a few more victories for this Arkansas football team.

I'm an optimistic sort. When I go to the golf course, I believe I'll make a birdie. And once I make the first, I think there will be several. A good day is waiting to be grabbed.

There are the same feelings on the trout stream. I see a rise, and I think perhaps there are a pod of fish down low and that my ruby midge will catch them all. I think my fly will fool them and they will soon be to hand.

It's the same way where Arkansas football is concerned. When I sit down in the press box to watch the Razorbacks, I see an opportunity for a victory, not a defeat. I can see ways that good can happen, instead of doom and gloom.

Maybe that's the way I was raised. Maybe it's just a positive outlook on life. I try for that and most days I have it. I once asked my father to write a prediction column for Hawgs Illustrated. He sent me one and the Hogs at 12-0. That's how it's done, he said. But he came up with reasons for it, too. It wasn't just optimism.

So last week while playing in the benefit golf tournament for the Frank and Barbara Broyles Foundation, a playing companion asked me a pointed question that I liked. How can the 2014 Razorbacks win eight games?

They CAN win eight, although I don't make my annual prediction until August, as everyone who knows me understands. And, if you ask me about all of those preseason magazines that are hinting at another 0-8 SEC campaign and last place, I throw those in the trash. Well, I won't forget them and I understand that none who made those picks saw an Arkansas practice this spring.

Well, I had not mentioned the number eight. I hadn't mentioned any number and I won't lock it down in June. I was busy thinking of ways to correct my little-used putting stroke and getting the ball into the hole. But as we waited for the group ahead to clear the fairway, that seemed like a good question and one asked better than most I've heard of late where the Hogs were concerned.

They CAN win eight, although I don't make my annual prediction until August, as everyone who knows me understands. And, if you ask me about all of those preseason magazines that are hinting at another 0-8 SEC campaign and last place, I throw those in the trash. Well, I won't forget them and I understand that none who made those picks saw an Arkansas practice this spring.

It would be easier to get seven of them in the regular season and the eighth in the Liberty Bowl where Arkansas most likely would fill the stadium. No, my playing partner said. He wanted to know how they could win eight in the regular season because that's what he wanted to set up Bret Bielema for a great third recruiting class.

Either way, it's possible. First, this is a much better Arkansas team. I saw a much improved secondary with special depth at corner, better play at linebacker, more swagger in the offensive line, better and deeper wide receivers and pure talent at running back and tight end.

I'll start with cornerback. There may be six who can make plays at cornerback. I saw so many solid players at corner this spring that I just knew that someone was going to move to safety after the spring.

But Bielema said all are corners moving forward and that there will be enough help at safety in the freshman class to solidify that position moving forward.

Carroll Washington and Jared Collins can both play. Washington may be special before season's end. He was on certain days last spring. He disrupt plays. He'll tangle with the wideouts with confidence that he can recover. That hasn't been around these parts in quite a few seasons. Will Hines, D. J. Dean, Tevin Mitchel and Chris Murphy can play, too. Mitchel fascinated new coordinator Robb Smith early in spring with physical, solid play and leadership, too.

Then there are the linebackers, perhaps not deep enough on the outside but with versatility in the middle where the Hogs have not had depth this century. Well, it seems like it's been that long since there were at least two mike linebackers on campus. Brooks Ellis was pushed by Otha Peters, a good sign. Both showed the ability to step into a gap and hold their own. No longer is the mike linebacker just a chase man to the boundary. He can make plays in the "A" gap to anchor the defense and make the right calls.

I recall the first Razorback Club that I heard Bielema at two years ago. He told the Mountain Home group that the two critical positions on every football team are quarterback and mike linebacker, because those are the positions that have to make the most decisions, calls and plays. Ellis and Peters can do that where last year no one could.

I saw Randy Shannon smile more last spring than in all of his first year with the Hogs. The assistant head coach and linebackers coach likes his players and they love him. Martrell Spaight and Braylon Mitchell look like players finally. Tiquention Coleman is a fire ball as the hybrid linebacker. More need to be found like him, but he reminds of Jerrico Nelson, a playmaker no matter the size.

The offensive line was decent last year, but it was probably not among the top five or six groups that Bielema had at Wisconsin. He dodged that question last winter in his office. He said, "They gave me everything they had and that's all you can ask."

No doubt, he was telling the truth. But this year's offensive line is going to be better and the next one will beat this one. It's the key to the future and there is nothing wrong with thinking that the future arrives a year ahead of schedule with this unit. If Mitch Smothers steps up or one of the newcomers beats him out because of great play, this line might blossom.

And, this line will be better because of better runners. There is pure talent in the backfield with Jonathan Williams, Alex Collins and Korliss Marshall. Jim Chaney says that Marshall has the "it" factor. I think he could be special. He has the burst, the desire and does not mind banging inside. They spent the spring working on hitting the hole quicker than last year. Collins had a fine spring and is poised for a breakout year after topping 1,000 last year. The only way he doesn't get it is if Marshall proves too special to watch.

Jared Cornelius and Cody Hollister gave the wideouts a boost in the spring. They will both play a lot. Eric Hawkins will be in that mix, too. Keon Hatcher had an impressive spring, outside two bad quarters in the spring game. JoJo Robinson (speed) and Kendrick Edwards (size and stature) will add to that group in the fall from the freshman class.

The tight end position is talented, too. Hunter Henry has his speed back after playing with a sore knee last year. Jeremy Sprinkle has it all together after feeling his way through a redshirt freshman season and is a playmaker. A.J. Derby is as talented as either and just needs to play some games. All three will be used often, two at a time in many situations. Alex Voelzke has learned to channel a reckless attitude into channeled aggression. Look out for this bunch.

My golfing partner liked all of this, but he was quick with the key question that has loomed since last fall. Can quarterback Brandon Allen take advantage of the strides made in other areas of the team and lead some fourth-quarter victories? The Hogs just weren't very good in the fourth quarter last year.

I think he can and mostly because the depth is better around him. This team won't give out ahead of the fourth quarter. But Allen will need to make some plays to bolster confidence. Well, I saw confidence in Allen from his teammates in the spring for the first 14 practices. He didn't play well in the first half of the spring game, the first time he was not accurate all spring.

Allen was the unquestioned leader of the team in the spring. His backups were not close, but both Austin Allen and Rafe Peavey made progress by the end of spring. If they take a few more steps forward this summer and in fall camp, one of them may be ready to push Allen if things don't go right early. Watch out for a Peavey move in August.

The question came quickly as we headed to the tee box. Does that mean you don't think Allen can do it?

It's a good question. No, I think he can and that's the reason the Hogs can win eight. Quarterback play is going to be improved this year. It will be improved with Brandon and there will be a competitive environment that has been lacking the first 18 months of Bielema's Arkansas stay at the most important position on the field.

There was one last question, another dandy. Where are those eight wins coming from? This is may be the toughest Arkansas schedule ever tried. It might be the most ambitious UA schedule since 1961 when Broyles' fourth team played four top 20 teams in the first five weeks, including three in the top 10. Those 1961 Hogs, who wound up 8-3 with a piece of the SWC title, would end up playing four in the top 10.

The 2014 Hogs don't have Lance Alworth at halfback or George McKinney and Billy Moore at quarterback. They don't have a center/inside linebacker like Danny Brabham. And, as I look deeper, there was also star power on that Broyles coaching staff with Doug Dickey, Hayden Fry, Jim Mackenzie, Wilson Matthews, Dixie White and Steed White.

But this staff is growing on me. I see a lot that I like in the new defensive coordinator, a rising star. I believe he'll be a head coach in time. Sam Pittman is a proven commodity and Shannon has all of the intangibles and experience.

I drove it down the middle to emphasize my point on the strength of this Bielema staff. But my partner didn't back down. Where are the wins coming from?

The Hogs are due some breaks. They got none last year. They'll make some breaks, as all good teams do. And, I think they can go 2-0 in Texas against the Red Raiders and Aggies. I think they'll get one of the Mississippi teams and I like the open dates, especially the one before LSU while the Tigers wear themselves out with Alabama. The eighth will come somewhere because of momentum, perhaps at Missouri. Or, it may have to wait until a bowl game.

OK, let's get back to making birdies and we did. It all started with a positive attitude, something I'm going to take into the 2014 season.

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