State of the Hogs: Tipping Point
Greg Schiano talked about the “tipping” point in August during his visit at the Northwest Arkansas Touchdown Club. The former NFL coach said it's the moment when things turn and a football program blossoms.
I thought I saw it happening for Bret Bielema's program Saturday in AT&T Stadium when Jonathan Williams broke a couple of tackles on a 55-yard run to the Texas A&M 1-yard line. But, alas, it was a play that failed to make it into the record books because of a tripping penalty against left tackle Dan Skipper. I wonder if Schiano, watching somewhere on TV for sure, thought he saw the tipping point in progress.
Yes, a “trip” erased the tipping point. That could have been the play that pushed Arkansas into a most likely position to make it to a bowl game in Bielema's second season. It would have put the Hogs at 4-1 with an open date to stoke the fire of fans so aching for a band wagon to load.
Oddly, Schiano's talk to the TD club mentioned a penalty and the reaction by teammates in the offensive line as the tipping point during his rise at Rutgers. A tackle rocked out of his stance for a procedure call that erased a nice play. His teammate reacted by giving him the “chopping” signal that Schiano had preached to his Rutgers team about continuing to chop wood. In other words, you just keep working and something positive eventually will happen.
That loss to Texas A&M could be like the Rutgers game of 2013, a loss that probably doomed the Hogs in what would turn out to be a 3-9 campaign. Will the A&M game be the same for the 2014 Hogs, so confident and positive after rolling to a comfortable victory at Lubbock three weeks ago?
It could, but here are reasons why I think it will only produce more resolve in this bunch of improved Razorbacks. In fact, I'll give you 10 of them, but there are probably more.
1, Bielema – This gives the detail-oriented head coach the fuel to once-and-for-all convince Skipper that he's going to be watched closer than a black jack dealer in Las Vegas. Destined to become a great left tackle in the NFL, Skipper is going to find out during the two weeks leading up to Alabama that his every move is going to be scrutinized by SEC referees. Bielema had called Skipper to his office to go over his concerns about dropping the silly stuff like the trip he tried to pull against A&M. Surely, Skipper gets it now. And, if he doesn't, there is Cameron Jefferson waiting in the wings to step in for him at tackle.
2, Martrell Spaight – The Hogs' weakside linebacker was mainly a novelty last year, a junior college transfer most famous for big hits on the practice field. He was not a polished defensive player. He wasn't sure where the play was going, but he'd try to get there, often times a step or two late. Now, he understands the defense and the keys for the position. He's playing like an All-SEC linebacker. He made 13 tackles against A&M and now hits in games like what was advertised in August of 2013. I wouldn't be surprised if Spaight is the first player drafted off this Arkansas defense.
3, The Guards – Sebastian Tretola (355) and Denver Kirkland (345) are playing like beasts. They make it easy for Frank Ragnow to step in at center. He's played more in the last two weeks. Mitch Smothers has not struggled as the starter, but Ragnow is making a move. The key will be for the Hogs to eliminate botched center snaps. There had been none until the A&M game and each of the centers had one against the Aggies. That can't happen. But this has quickly become a Hog strength, the inside of the line. You'd be hard pressed to pick who will be the best player in this group when the season ends. Ragnow is a long way from what he's going to be in year two and three, but he's making a move as a true freshman. This is an area of the team that will give even Alabama some trouble as they get better and better under Sam Pittman, the veteran offensive line coach coveted by Nick Saban.
4, Randy Ramsey Time – The Hogs played almost all nickel against Texas Tech and Texas A&M. Freshman linebacker Randy Ramsey was held out with an injured ankle against Tech. He hurt the other ankle against Northern Illinois and wasn't in the plans for A&M's spread, as coordinator Robb Smith had hoped. But I'm guessing that when the Hogs see more tight ends and fullbacks the next two weeks against Alabama and Georgia, Ramsey becomes a bigger factor. He's the most athletic of the strongside linebackers. And, he gets to the ball with a punch. I think it's Randy Ramsey time and it may be what pushes the Arkansas defense to the tipping point.
5, Depth at Safety – The Hogs will use the open week to get Alan Turner and Rohan Gaines some help at safety. Whether its true freshman Josh Liddell or redshirt freshman De'Andre Coley, the Hogs have to get their safeties some rest. Maybe Kevin Richardson, a walk-on playing as a slot cover back (like a safety) against the spread, can help in the back end. But the Hogs need to get another safety ready to provide help so that everyone's fresh for the fourth quarter.
6, Physicality – The Hogs should be more prepared for Alabama/Georgia than the spread teams that they've mostly seen in the first five games. Both are going to try to run the ball in a mindset that's more what Arkansas sees daily in practice. I don't worry about Alabama as much as I did Auburn and Texas Tech because of style of play similarities.
7, Tevin Mitchel – The matchup with Amari Cooper looked much tougher for Arkansas until Tevin Mitchel returned against Tech. He's taken away the big-play man for the opposition the last two weeks. Robb Smith has mentioned that Mitchel could play anywhere, as a nickel in the slot, or on the outside. Maybe Mitchel follows Cooper everywhere. A healthy Mitchel makes things easier for Smith with his calls. Henre' Toliver, who had to leave the A&M game with a scratch to the eye, should be full go against the Tide. He's just emerging and has the size and length, like Mitchel, to play against SEC wideouts. He'll come in handy against a good Alabama wideout group.
8, Confidence – It's clear that the Hogs know they are better. They knew it before the fans and the media felt it. I wasn't sure what was going to happen against A&M. But I saw enough to know that there is some continuity in SEC play that began in the overtime loss against Mississippi State last November. The Hogs have lost 14 straight SEC games, but they have been in three of their last four in the final seconds, losing twice in overtime. Some might look at that and say it would hurt confidence to lose like that. It could be argued that the Hogs should have beaten State, LSU and A&M. They didn't, but it should give the Hogs confidence that they can play with anyone and that their day is coming soon. College Football News saw something to give it confidence in the trip to Tech and against A&M, putting the Hogs in at No. 10 in their college football rankings this week. That is maybe a stunner, but the ESPN power index has had Arkansas high for several weeks. And, this from College Football News in an explanation of "why not higher" question that is included with every team said, "Until the latter stages, the Razorbacks outplayed a Texas A&M team that had looked unbeatable during the first month of the season. Arkansas’ other loss was to another top 10 opponent outside of Fayetteville, Auburn."
9, Running backs – As expected, one of the strengths is the running back group of Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and Korliss Marshall. Marshall had to work his way through a few bumps, the obvious one the habit of losing the ball upon contact. That gave Collins and Williams the bulk of the work for a couple of weeks. But he was in the plan against A&M and will be even more going forward. All three are going to be needed as the grind of SEC play hits. One of these three will explode in a fourth-quarter burst that lifts the Hogs to a couple of SEC wins.
10, Home Sweet Home – The Hogs have played three of five outside of the Natural State. Things always improve at home. Of the next six, five are home games. They'll get Alabama, Alabama-Birmingham, LSU and Ole Miss in Fayetteville. They'll be in Little Rock for Georgia. I still think Missouri is a game the Hogs can win, but I expect there's going to be some fun in those home games. Brandon Allen has shown improvement as a road quarterback. But almost all quarterbacks play better at home. That will be the case for Allen in this streak of friendly locations.
In summary, I'm more convinced that this Arkansas team has made considerable progress in the offseason than in August when I picked six victories. I'm not sure where the victories will come outside of Alabama-Birmingham, but I've changed my mindset from thinking all of the SEC games were possible losses to a much more positive approach that all are now winnable. That's much different.
Why? The defense is improved. Allen is what I thought he was in the spring and maybe better. A.J. Derby and Jeremy Sprinkle are legit threats. And, there is help on the way at linebacker. Don't be surprised at how much progress is made at that position in the open date when Randy Shannon gets more time with Ramsey and fellow freshmen Dwayne Eugene and Khalia Hackett. Juco linebacker Josh Williams may make a move, too.
The issues that have to be addressed may start with placekicker. Josh Henson has made two chip shots, but missed two more that were makable. The 44-yard miss that would have locked up the A&M game was a big one. That alone might give true freshman Cole Hedlund or Adam McFain, the man with the best leg strength among the placement specialists, an opening that proves interesting in an open week.
But make no mistake about the top issue, Bielema will cover penalties during the two weeks leading up to Alabama. Playing mistake free football is his number one fundamental, making sure his team doesn't beat itself. Known as a coach players love, this might not be the week they love Bielema most, especially if your penalty pushed the “tipping” point back a few weeks.
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