There were two major question marks heading into fall camp with the Arkansas football team ... quarterback and placekicker. In some ways, those question marks have been lessened, but in some ways they remain. Only solid performances in games will tell if they have been really answered.
But, let's take a look at each area, and then we'll dive into some other side issues with what has transpired in this fall camp.
There were several questions that dealt with the quarterbacks. The first one, concerning Robby Hampton, surfaced quickly. Hampton's shoulder, operated on in January to repair rotator cuff damage, did not heal quickly and he may not be available until midseason. But, there was also extremely good news at quarterback, concerning the need for a backup to Zak Clark.
Junior college quarterback Ryan Sorahan was "better" than advertised. His arm, while not sensational, is solid and his ability to learn the offense in quick fashion was outstanding. Sorahan was signed in early summer and proved to be the answer as far as the Hogs' backup quarterback.
There was other good news at quarterback. Freshman recruits Matt Jones and Tarvaris Jackson proved to be great talents. Jones passes better than advertised, and Jackson has a cannon of an arm, as strong as any Razorback quarterback ever. Both are far from ready for SEC action, but will be great starting candidates for the future.
Let's move back to Zak Clark. His fall camp has been solid, but doubts were raised in a subpar scrimmage performance that was not up to his practice performance in the last two weeks of the spring or in fall camp. After watching Clark all through spring, I will discount that one poor public scrimmage and predict that he will be a solid, but not spectacular, quarterback this season. He knows the offense, has solid ability and has the confidence of his teammates and coaches. In fact, David Lee, his new quarterback coach, raves about Clark. That's good enough for me, and I won't worry until Clark disproves that confidence with poor game performances.
If there is a worry about Clark, it is a sore elbow. Tendinitis has reduced his performance level late in two-a-days, but trainers and coaches predicted that he'd regain his zip as the Hogs tapered their work load in the coming days as game day approached.
The placekicking scenario has turned out better than quarterback, in my view. Brennan O'Donohoe was a disappointment last fall. He sustained a groin injury early in fall camp and never regained his leg strength or his confidence. And, that was still a problem in the spring. Hence, the Hogs worked hard to attract a bevy of walkon kickers in the offseason. They did well. In fact, they did extremely well.
The best of the newcomers is Tulsa product David Carlton. He boomed a 62-yard field goal in Wednesday's workout and has pushed O'Donohoe every day in fall camp. Carlton has earned the nod on kickoffs, and is nipping at O'Donohoe's heels for the placekicking job.
The good news is that O'Donohoe has not spit the bit this fall. He looks to be the kicker that most thought when he was signed out of El Dorado two years ago. He is healthy and much lighter than last year after losing 25 pounds in a summer workout routine at home. His coaches talk about his confidence and the return of his strong leg. It may help him, too, that he does not have to worry about kickoffs.
Again, the personal view is that placekicker is a strength now, instead of a weakness. There is nothing like competition to toughen a player, and bring out his best qualities and that appears to be the case with O'Donohoe, and Carlton, too.
Overall, the kicking game has been solid in fall camp. Richie Butler is sensational after losing weight in the offseason. He was good by the end of last season, and I would now list him with any of the great Arkansas punters you can name.
If there is one area that I've worried about in preseason it would be wide receiver. The best of an average group seem to be Richard Smith and George Wilson. There is no question that Wilson has the most consistent hands of the wideouts. Smith is faster and flashier and has had a good camp, too, but he is not as consistent as Wilson. Sparky Hamilton and Sam Breeden have had brilliant days, but have also dropped far too many balls and have been assigned second team slots because of that problem.
The only other real question mark on the team would be tight end. Nathan Ball is the best of another rather average group. J. Strain could be the answer, but he sustained a knee injury on the first play of fall practice. He returned to practice on Wednesday, but will need time to find his conditioning and learn the new twists in the offense. Strain is coming off ACL surgery and needed a good fall camp. Obviously, that didn't happen. The other tight ends, Marcellus Poydras and James Toussaint, have assets, but also liabilities. Poydras is not a physical blocker. Toussaint has good hands, but also is not a physical blocker. Toussaint has improved greatly from last year and will play. There is depth at tight end, just not great ability.
The offensive line has been solid. There was a scare when Shannon Money sustained a minor knee injury midway through fall camp, but he has returned on Wednesday. He will start and should play well. If there was a question mark, it was at center where Josh Melton missed time because of dehydration and an elbow injury. He will start, but the Hogs also worked Kenny Sandlin a lot at center, checking out Jim Peters at right guard. Right tackle Mark Bokermann, the only new starter, held off a challenge from freshman Shawn Andrews. Mike Markuson, the line coach, thinks Andrews is doing well and will get some playing time this fall and possibly in the opener. The offensive line is fit and trim. No one tips the scales at more than 313 pounds, and that is a huge improvement over last season.
The offensive backfield is one of the top units in the SEC. Cedric Cobbs, Brandon Holmes, Fred Talley, Mark Pierce, DeCori Birmingham, Kyle Dickerson and Mark Luther are solid players. Pierce is a freshman phenom who earned the MVP award in the Texas/Oklahoma all-star game. Talley is close to full speed after a remarkable offseason rehab from ACL surgery. He looked fit eight days out from the season opener.
The Hogs will likely start Cobbs at tailback, and Holmes at fullback, but can go with multiple other combinations in the backfield. Birmingham was tried at wide receiver early in fall camp, but sparkled once he returned to tailback.
Defensively, the Hogs have been superb and have a chance to have one of the better units in the SEC. The speed is better in every area.
The secondary is filled with speedy scorpions. Freshman cornerback Batman Carroll has been outstanding. Lawrence Richardson has been just as good at the other cornerback. And, the depth there is out of this world with Eddie Jackson, a returning starter, and juco transfer Marvin Jackson. All four will play. Jackson also trained at strong safety to allow Corey Harris to split time with Ken Hamlin at free safety, giving the Hogs outstanding flexibility. That will pay dividends in some of the multiple schemes coordinator John Thompson has installed. Jackson will be an extra safety in some schemes, giving them better man coverage ability in their overall defense.
The linebackers are deep and solid. Jermaine Petty was the rave of fall camp on defense, perhaps earning the starting nod over Shane Collins at middle linebacker. Collins was the clear starter coming out of spring, and didn't disappoint in fall camp. However, Petty emerged as a headhunter in run defense assignments, especially on the goal line. And, Petty took control as a leader in the huddle, something you'd expect from a senior. Collins