State of the Hogs: Stretch Run

Arkansas coach Bret Bielema has an improved team, as recognized in the power index. But the Razorbacks are in need of something to get over the hump.

If you scan the ESPN Football Power Index, you get an idea of the current plight for the Arkansas football team. Here's the five losses for the Hogs:

No. 1 Alabama
No. 2 Auburn
No. 7 Mississippi State
No. 9 Georgia
No. 22 Texas A&M

It may stun some that a 4-5 team is ranked as high as No. 20 in the ESPN FPI, but that's exactly where the Hogs sit with three games to play.

The bad news is that two of the three teams left on the UA schedule are also ranked in the top dozen in the ESPN ratings: No. 3 Ole Miss and No. 11 LSU. Missouri, leading the SEC East, is the patsy at No. 37.

Those power ratings go along with what I thought of the SEC schedule all along. Well, I didn't expect the SEC to dominate it so much, but I did think Texas A&M, LSU and Missouri were the easiest touches on the Arkansas slate – if you can call them easy.

What's unfortunate is that none of the other SEC East are on the Arkansas schedule. The rest of the SEC that the Hogs didn't draw: No. 23 Florida, No. 31 South Carolina, No. 32 Tennessee, No. 46 Kentucky and No. 92 Vanderbilt.

It's just the luck of the draw, so to speak. I knew that going in, but still thought the Hogs could somehow get to six victories in the regular season. I thought the key two-game stretch came in Texas, against Texas Tech and Texas A&M.

I think I was right. The Hogs destroyed Tech and they were in the process of doing the same thing when they began this awful habit of shooting themselves in the foot with deadly precision. The penalty for tripping on a Jonathan Williams run to the A&M 2-yard line was critical, as was a missed field goal in the final minutes of the overtime loss.

The Hogs should be sitting in the open date needing one more victory to assure a bowl bid, something that is still possible with LSU and Ole Miss coming to Fayetteville over the next two weeks, followed by the short week trip to Mizzou the day after Thanksgiving.

The Hogs are healthy enough to play with both sets of Tigers and the Rebels, coming off their annual blood bath with Alabama. And, they get back at least one piece to the puzzle that's lacking, some speed. Korliss Marshall, suspended the last three games, returns for the LSU game and will quickly be inserted in four different units in the kicking game.

It's speed that these Hogs lack, in all areas. It may show up most in the offensive line, where the Hogs are the biggest team in college football. But you can see that lack of speed in alignment.

In talking to a veteran coach this week, he pointed to the splits in the O-line as a true indicator of the lack of speed in that blocking group.

“You see an offensive line toe to toe with tight splits, they are worried about linebackers running through gaps,” he said. “That's the first thing I see with this Arkansas offensive line. They do some things well and they are strong and physical. But big isn't always wonderful. There just isn't going to be much room for their running backs, either. It's tough work inside when you have splits like that.

“I know why they do it. I've done the same things. But that's a tip of where there issues lie and it's overall speed with that group.”

It's the same thing with other units on the offense, he said. Overall speed at wide receiver is not SEC caliber. The running backs are solid and one of the team strengths, but not loaded with jet-like speed, except with Marshall, a non-factor for much of the season. He was in the doghouse early because of fumbles (at Auburn) and then suspended for four games.

The wide receivers have made plays in the run game at times, blocking the perimeter in fine fashion. But they sometimes whiff, too. That happened on the goal line against Mississippi State when the Hogs came up empty on three runs from point-blank range.

There is help on the way at wide receiver, and in the offensive line, for that matter. There is speed an athleticism developing in both areas.

At wide receiver, true freshmen Jared Cornelius, JoJo Robinson and Kendrick Edwards are true freshman who will develop. The 2015 class has several wideouts committed, including speedy K.J. Hill, Deon Stewart and LaMichael Pettway.

The offensive line possibilities are fascinating. Brian Wallace, listed as Brey Cook's backup, has spent his redshirt season on the travel squad. He has stunning foot quickness that smacks of an NFL tackle. Frank Ragnow has played in relief of Mitch Smothers at center and has amazing speed and athletic ability for a big man. Both Wallace and Ragnow will make the Hogs much more athletic up front next season.

I wouldn't be surprised if deluxe recruiter Sam Pittman, the O-line coach, finds another gem or two to change the look of the front even more. I also expect Sebastian Tretola to continue to shed pounds. As he does, he'll continue to find more quickness, just as Denver Kirkland did this year.

There are interesting possibilities dancing in my head and I'd be surprised if Pittman hasn't though of them, too. Could Kirkland become a fine pass blocking left tackle? What about Ragnow at guard? Or, what about Mitch Smothers at guard and Ragnow at center.

Head coach Bret Bielema has all but predicted All-America status for Ragnow. I'm guessing he likes him best at center, but he probably could play several spots. I imagine Ragnow as the “pulling center” like Travis Swanson was in 2013. Ragnow may be faster than Swanson.

It's that lack of speed in the offensive line that leaves the pulling part of the blocking scheme on the table. And, it also makes screens tough calls for offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. Those areas come back into play as this unit gets faster and quicker and it's a sure bet it will happen with Pittman and Bielema chasing great O-line talent across the country.

All of that makes things easier and easier for the quarterback. But will it continue to be Brandon Allen? He's not played at an elite level at anytime this season, the reason the Hogs haven't been able to raise themselves above some of their talent voids at other positions. Allen does well at times, but he's no better than any of his offensive teammates. He is better in going through progressions, but doesn't always find every open receiver and is quick to throw it away after giving up pick six throws last year and in the Auburn game.

Allen's backup is his younger brother, redshirt freshman Austin Allen. There hasn't been much game action to know what to expect from Austin. Can he push for the starting job in the spring? He's not as athletic as Brandon and his arm isn't quite as strong, but it's probably a bit stronger than Rafe Peavy, the true freshman on the redshirt list.

Peavy has quick feet and is a willing runner. He has good touch and Bielema described his arm as “live” throughout spring and early in the fall. But it's not a powerful arm. He was a proven leader during a solid high school career an Boliver, Mo. He could develop into “the man” in that regard in time at Arkansas. But will he be there by spring?

Then, there's Ty Storey, the senior at Charleston with the gee whiz stats and likely headed to another state championship. He'll enroll at Arkansas in January, just like Peavy did last year. Can Storey make a run at Allen's job in the spring?

No matter who it is at quarterback, it continues to get better around him at Arkansas. Defense will continue to improve in Robb Smith's second season at defensive coordinator.

The back end of the defense, although still a work in progress, improves with the young talent already in the pipeline, that wonderful group of Henre' Toliver, Santos Ramirez, Cornelius Floyd and Josh Liddell. Finally, there is some stature to these UA defensive backs.

It's like Clay Jennings, the secondary coach, told me Wednesday night, "Our guys have bought in. You see them doing all the right things. We just need to continue to do the little things better and hold on to the intensity that they've played with the last few weeks. We are going to get there. We are tackling better. We can play the run and we are improving against the pass."

In the front seven, graduation – and that is the right word, too – hurts with the loss of Trey Flowers and Martrell Spaight, both headed to the NFL. These two are wonderful leaders and players. They will be missed.

But there is development taking place at linebacker and at end. Randy Ramsey, Dwayne Eugene, Khalia Hackett and Josh Williams will play like Spaight, eventually, joining Brooks Ellis in a unit that will finally look like what Randy Shannon and Bielema have fielded earlier in his career. Remember, Bielema is an old linebacker coach and takes pride in this unit.

There will finally be some depth in the defensive end group next year. There is help in the recruiting class in Jamario Bell and Daytrieon Dean. Deatrich Wise and Brandon Lewis seem to be getting healthier and should blossom. JaMichael Winston and Tevin Beanum are also solid players.

At defensive tackle, the Hogs will insert some beef in the next class with juco transfer Jeremiah Ledbetter and Danish import Hjalte Froholdt. Bijohn Jackson, the DT prize in the 2014 class, is making progress. There's good possibilities here to go with speedy playmakers Darius Philon and Taiwan Johnson.

It's all headed in the right direction. The Hogs just need something to kick start them to winning SEC games. Unfortunately, the schedule maker hasn't dumped Vanderbilt, Kentucky, South Carolina or Florida in their lap. They do get an improving Tennessee next year as an SEC East cross division game next year.

For now, they've got to figure it out against LSU, Ole Miss and Mizzou. It's more than doable.

In fact, I feel better about the future than I did last year, even with all of the losses. It's hard to imagine seeing this much goodness ahead with this long string of SEC losses. It's almost not possible.

They just need that one defining play to get them over the hump. Maybe it comes from someone like Toliver, a lock-down corner. He'll be playing against his home-state Tigers next week, surely excited to be healthy.

Maybe it comes from another Bayou State prospect, the new punt returner, Cornelius. He looked like a prospect to make something happen as a return man against State.

Maybe it just comes down to eliminating the killer penalty, the unsportsmanlike 15-yard foul that has popped up in key moments in three SEC losses. Maybe it's just playing clean in turnovers and penalties that gets the Hogs to pay dirt for a couple of SEC victories the rest of the way.

Or, maybe it's Marshall, back in the mix after getting down to what Bielema called “the last straw.” He was the man I thought would put the Hogs over the hump in August, my choice for our August cover of Hawgs Illustrated. It's not been a good year for Marshall, but he could still save it with those fresh legs for these last three games.

If not, maybe it comes from those wonderful tight ends: Hunter Henry, AJ Derby and Jeremy Sprinkle. They've been the best playmakers for this team other than Williams and Collins fighting for tough yards behind that big offensive line.

But it needs to come soon if it is to a season to remember, instead of one that is so full of oh-so-close losses you'd like to forget. I'm not into moral victories. Neither are these Hogs.

If ever you could tell that, Flowers sent that message after the loss at Mississippi State. He's doing everything in his power to help Bielema get the Hogs over the hump. Maybe it comes against LSU.

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