State of the Hogs: Top 10 (Nicholls)

It's Nicholls, or Nicholls State, or just the Colonels (with a sword on their helmets). Here's a look of 10 key areas by publisher Clay Henry for the 3 p.m. Saturday game at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

So we are to call these Colonels simply Nicholls? No longer are they to be called Nicholls State by the media in football stories. I can do that. Saves five key strokes a bunch. But I'd rather just say NSU in second reference. Perhaps I will slip and do that at some point this weekend when on deadline. Saving key strokes on deadline is helpful sometimes.

But it's really going to be slower to write this story and the rest this weekend. I'll need a flip card at the game to keep track of who is in the game. I was reaching for it last week at Auburn and will need it more this week as Bret Bielema begins what he promised three weeks, going with the young guns.

I asked almost the first time we were with Bielema in the first week of fall camp the key question on the newcomers: How many will play in 2014.

And, he began to number them by position. He said there were four linebackers (Josh Williams, Randy Ramsey, Dwayne Eugene and Khalia Hackett), possibly three defensive backs (Henre' Tolliver, Cornelius Floyd, Josh Liddell), two in the defensive line (Bijohn Jackson and Anthony Brown), four in the offensive line (Sebastian Tretola, Cam Jefferson, Frank Ragnow and Brian Wallace), four wide receivers (Jared Cornelius, Cody Hollister, JoJo Robinson and Kendrick Edwards) and possibly one kicker (Cole Hedlund).

Out of that bunch, Hollister and Cornelius were here in the spring and it should not surprise that they are in the rotation at wideout. Tretola, Williams and Jefferson are transfers and old enough to help quickly, so they aren't a surprise, either. And, almost from signing day, most assumed that those three freshmen linebackers, starting with Ramsey, would be in the picture soon if only on special teams.

I figured all those true freshmen wouldn't be pushed on the field in the opener against Auburn. Bielema explained that several times this week, noting it's a game that could break the confidence of a young player if they aren't ready. No use slowing their development in that game.

"You might set them back forever," he said. "But we knew there were a lot of young players we were going to eventually play."

Eventually is probably this week against the Colonels, the team with the sword on their helmets, as Trey Flowers described them. No, he didn't know where Thibodaux, La., might be, but he did know that the Hogs will be ready to tackle better this week.

Poor tackling in an opener when the opposition has quality backs never surprises me. No one is going to tackle their top backs in practice. You can bet first team defenders didn't get many shots at Korliss Marshall, Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams in August. They probably could get away with grab and strip, their error, against second teamers, but not against Cameron Artis-Payne, the solid Auburn runner.

Rory Segrest, the defensive line coach, said the focus this week was to wrap up, then go for the strip when the second or third man gets there. It's back to fundamentals. Actually, Flowers said, those fundamentals were never abandoned in practice. They just didn't take them to the game.

"We do tackling circuits every day we are in full pads and some of that is get them on the ground," Flowers said. "I am one that likes to go for the ball. I learned a lesson and can't do that when I'm first there. I'm going to tackle them."

Flowers thinks the young players will do fine this week. He sees a jump in focus from camp now that the games have begun. He thinks the big cast of freshmen in the defensive rotation will provide a boost.

Bielema said Flowers will get all the snaps he wants. He mentioned that he will rely on the senior bell cow to monitor when he's getting to empty, but that the assistant coaches will be assigned snaps for most of the other players.

What does that mean? I read that as two things in my translation. He wants to make sure that talent is brought along in the freshman class and there was a slip in effort in the second half at Auburn. Losing is a habit, but young ones don't have that habit.

"I want that winning feeling back," Flowers said. "I think we need it in the worst way. We gotta feel that again. I remember it, but it's been awhile. There are some of us in the top class (of seniors) that were here when we went 11-2.

"How do we get it back, focus on details, like wrapping up. We gotta do a better job in the little things and then we have to push through fatigue and soreness in the second half."

Bielema wants to make sure no one is tired in the fourth quarter. That means playing those freshmen and newcomers. Counting redshirt freshmen, it could be as many as 20 against Nicholls playing their first game in the home stadium.

I figured all along it was coming because I took the head coach at his word that it was going to be more newcomers than ever before during his time as a head coach. Someone who asks why only needs to look at that losing streak that's about to end.

That gets me to the weekly top 10 list of things to watch. I'll start with linebacker and all of those newcomers and some things that could work out as a plus eventually.

Top 10 Keys for Nicholls

1. Speed at the second level -- It's about more than linebackers, but that's where I think these four newcomers help th most. JC transfer Josh Williams gives Brooks Ellis some rest at middle linebacker and that keeps Ellis fresh and moving fast. It also could enable Ellis to play at strongside linebacker if Randy Ramsey doesn't push past Braylon Mitchell and Daunte Carr. Ramsey is the water moccasin of this young group. He's got the quick twitch and ability to strike in space. But Dwayne Eugene and Khalia Hackett remind Bielema of some former players in the NFL. An old linebacker coach, Bielema knows these are the real deal and need to be playing sooner than later. Look for No. 11 (Ramsey) on the field against the Colonels.

2. Tackling -- That's already been covered, but I expect tackling to take a jump this week. Coordinator Robb Smith wants to see the defense set the edge and play outside in and not get that "boxed in" look so runners can bounce outside, sure death against any gap control defense. On the other side, can Nicholls tackle the UA backs? I don't think so. This might be the game that Alex Collins breaks a long one. I don't think the Colonels can contain the shifty Collins.

3. Turnovers -- If the Hogs win this category in a big way, it might make it easier for Bielema to get to those young ones even quicker. The Hogs need to play clean after giving up a pick six because of faulty pass protection at Auburn. Can playing more keep the Hogs fresher and avoid the mental errors? It could mean a big edge in turnovers, something the Hogs haven't had for three seasons.

4. Brandon Allen -- It's not clear what Nicholls will play against the Hogs. The only film of new defensive coordinator Steve Adams is against the Air Force option attack, completely different than what the Hogs will run. Adams was special teams coordinator last year and has never been a defensive coordinator. Sam Pittman said, "I think what we'll see is them load the box just like Auburn did. Auburn has one of the better defensive fronts in the nation and if they needed to load the box, I am sure most teams, including Nicholls, will load the box, too." That means Allen should get some shots down the field against a secondary left thin by scheme. Allen should have a big day with tight ends running the seam, perhaps getting Jeremy Sprinkle open deep.

5. Offensive Line -- How quickly does Frank Ragnow, the true freshman center, get in the game in relief of Mitch Smothers? I'm thinking by the second quarter. Ragnow is pushing for the job and is a fierce run blocker. Watch to see if he can get out front on pulling plays, like Travis Swanson last year. He's quick and a long stepper in the open field. He was able to run the floor on the basketball floor and so this should be an area that gives the Hogs an edge on the outside. Does Sebastian Tretola play both guard slots? He might, enabling Denver Kirkland to rest Brey Cook at right tackle. If you want a treat, focus on Kirkland and Tretola. They are beasts at guard and should over match the Colonels inside.

6. Drops -- Do they go away for the UA wideouts? Keon Hatcher and Demetrius Wilson, the two vets in this group, had big drops at Auburn. If there are any more from them, that may signal more playing time for the young ones. Of that group, JoJo Robinson isn't likely to play. He suffered a minor injury in practice when he was stepped on in a pile. He's doubtful. I think Jared Cornelius steps up. He didn't see the ball much against Auburn. I bet he does this week. He's got the best hands on the team. Other players marvel at how strong his hands are among the young players. Apparently, Cornelius is stronger than his age would suggest.

7. Kicking game -- Placekicker Josh Henson didn't get a chance last week in Auburn. He beat out highly regarded true freshman Cole Hedlund in a tight race in camp. Can he answer the bell when he gets into a game. For kickers, nothing is similar to a game. How Henson does under pressure might signal whether or not Hedlund keeps a redshirt. "Henson had a good camp and he's had two good weeks of practice," said Rory Segrest, special teams coach. "We want to get him a chance. But we also want to clean up the other areas of special teams." Punt returner D. J. Dean fielded one punt inside his 5-yard line. That's another area that needs some attention this week.

8. Line of scrimmage -- Nicholls (State) is a FBS team, not on the same level as number of scholarships and competition. If there is any place that shows up, it's the line of scrimmage. Can the Hogs dominate this area? Does the pile move for the Hogs? Do the Hogs get some penetration and quarterback pressure against the multiple offense as called by head coach Charlie Stubbs? Can the ends, slowed last week by play-action fakes, get to the NSU quarterback? Arkansas did control the line at times against Auburn, but lost that battle in the second half. How will it be against an FBS team?

9. Bells and Whistles -- Some have thought the Hogs are too vanilla. Fans ache for more bells and whistles, more exotic play calling and more variety. Coordinator Jim Chaney said last week that they had a second play script ready for the second half, but went with what had been working in the first half. Will we get to see that second half script this week?

10. Atmosphere -- This is not an attractive game for fans. But it is the home opener. How many will show up and what will be the atmosphere on a hot day in Reynolds Razorback Stadium. Beer and wine is now on sale in the club areas. There's also a special tent atop the south end zone club seats for students with a DJ spinning tunes. How many will stay in the tent? And, how many will come to the game?

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