State of the Hogs: 2015

There was a good finish to 2014 and nothing is going to change in 2015. Arkansas football is on the rise. Here's a quick look at next year after a 7-6 season and a 31-7 victory over Texas in Houston.

It's way too early to start looking at 2015. We should still be celebrating a 31-7 thumping of Texas in Houston, or hugging on victories over LSU and Ole Miss by a combined 47-0 score.

But let's jump ahead, knowing that those three games signal the tipping point for the Bret Bielema program. Year three promises to be more good things. Nothing is easy in the SEC West, but the Hogs enter 2015 as the team no one wants to play. Ask the lowly Longhorns.

First, let's look at what the Razorbacks are losing off what may be the best 7-6 team in the history of football. At least, it was pretty darn good from about the middle of October through Monday night. Minus four or five big plays, these Razorbacks could have been in the top 10.

There's one major hit to the coaching staff. It appears Randy Shannon is on his way to joining the Florida staff as linebackers coach, moving closer to home. Shannon is and always will be a Sunshine State guy. It was an upset for him to spend one year in Texas and two in Arkansas.

Shannon's contribution the last two years was considerable. First, he retooled the Arkansas linebackers, a void for the last several seasons. He turned Martrell Spaight into an All-American, the SEC's top tackler with 128. He trained Brooks Ellis to be the leader of the defense.

But the Hogs will have a good defense in 2015, maybe a great one. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith is an old linebackers coach, as is Bielema. They'll figure it out. I would think Smith could slide in there as a position coach, and still help with the playmaker spots as he did this year when he really wasn't a position coach. Clay Jennings is more than comfortable coaching all four of the secondary spots and has plenty of returnees there.

I don't know where Bielema will go to find a linebackers coach, but one possibility would be Greg Schiano. He did not land a plum head coaching job after sitting out this past season. He's close to Smith. He wouldn't be here long, because he will get a head coaching job at some point. But he's a big name that would be a home run hire.

Andy Buh is also available. He coached linebackers for Bielema at Wisconsin and would be a seamless fit. I don't fret over this hire. Bielema has a healthy budget and there are going to be good coaches who want to coach these linebackers. This position is only going to get better, too. Bielema will find linebackers on the recruiting trail, something the last three coaches did not do.

The Hogs do lose some fantastic players. Defensive end Trey Flowers provided the big plays and big leadership. Bielema talked after the Texas victory about Flowers asking to speak to the freshman class after two were late to a meeting about one week before the bowl game. Flowers said it was about teaching them how to win. Coaches will be preaching the Flowers legacy for a long time.

And, they will point to what Spaight did, both in recruiting and to the youngsters stepping up at linebacker, like Randy Ramsey, Khalia Hackett and Dwayne Eugene. It's that kind of talent that makes it easier to send Spaight to the NFL. Josh Williams, juco transfer, was able to spell Ellis adequately. Don't be surprised if Williams or one of those youngsters slide in at middle linebacker and Ellis moves to weakside where Spaight was the top playmaker. It's just the way the scheme works and Ellis can handle that role.

Flowers will be replaced by committee where recruiting has filled gaps in solid fashion the last few seasons at defensive end. Jeremiah Ledbetter is the number one junior college defensive end. He's not Flowers, but he's extremely good. He will be here for spring practice and should slide into a starting spot.

There is good depth and talent at defensive end. JaMichael Winston, Deatrich Wise, Mitchell Loewen, Tevin Beanum, Brandon Lewis and Jake Hall make for a solid pool of candidates to deliver SEC quality play.

The other major loss on defense is safety Alan Turner, a fine leader and sure tackler. Not the fastest safety in the SEC, Turner's best asset was lining up right and making sure that the rest of the secondary did, too.

I think the Hogs will be fine in the secondary. First, Jennings and Smith can coach. They've got young talent to mold. Santos Ramirez could be a great player in the making. Josh Liddell played well in place of Rohan Gaines, likely back after a suspension, when pressed into duty against LSU, Ole Miss and Texas. There are good players at cornerback in D.J. Dean, Henre' Toliver and Jared Collins. Look for Toliver to slide into the nickel spot vacated by Tevin Mitchel.

One development to watch is Darius Philon, eligible for the NFL draft as a third-year sophomore. The cat-quick defensive tackle emerged as one of the SEC's top playmakers. Bielema will be in his home in the next week to explore his options.

Bielema always says it's not about trying to get them to stay, as Flowers did. It's about making them aware of the facts. What would Philon be worth with another year in a solid defensive program and with a standout strength coach in Ben Herbert? I'd expect Philon back, considering he's got two years of eligibility. But that's undetermined.

Offensively, the real key is the development at wide receiver where the Hogs expect redshirt freshman JoJo Robinson to step up. He was fantastic in the last six weeks of developmental practices. Bielema raved about his ability to compete in tackling drills, most notably against Spaight. That's good enough for me. He's quick and fast and will push for playing time, likely at the slot position. He's the vertical threat the Hogs ached for the last two seasons.

The offensive line is going to benefit from the development of Brian Wallace and Frank Ragnow. Brey Cook had a fine senior campaign, but the Hogs may be better there in the long term. Wallace and Ragnow are better foot athletes than Cook, a smart, tough player for most of his last two seasons.

Ragnow was fantastic in the bowl game, both at center, tackle and tight end. He filled in for Mitch Smothers when there was a minor injury against Texas, then came back to relieve Smothers twice in the second half. The Hogs ran behind Ragnow, an extra tackle, on fourth-and-1 at the 5-yard line just ahead of the clinching touchdown. Texas has a fine defensive line and Ragnow didn't have any trouble at any of the spots he filled Monday night.

Sebastian Tretola and Denver Kirkland will continue to develop as guards. Dan Skipper seems to have settled in at left tackle. He was rock solid against a good Texas defensive line. No sign of a penalty or close call might signal the turning point for the 6-10 man mountain.

Offensive line play was decent this year, but will shine in 2015. There's nothing like matching great defensive linemen in the SEC week after week to mold an offensive line. This will be a veteran group next fall.

AJ Derby will be missed at tight end, but the recruiting has been good there. Jack Kraus will help in blocking situations, plus Will Gragg and C.J. O'Grady are big-time recruits. Gragg will be here in the spring, something that will get him on the field in the fall. Hunter Henry is a great player at this position and should have an All-SEC junior year.

I'll be interested to see the development of kicker Cole Hedlund in the spring. He took a redshirt season and really that spot was never settled. He'll have a chance to compete for that job. Competition rocks the world and is a good thing.

The strength of this team will be offensive leadership, led by quarterback Brandon Allen, poised for a great senior year. His turnovers went away this season. There's always a gnashing of teeth when Allen throws the ball away when he doesn't like the coverage, but that's a sign of coaching. With a good defense, live for another play if the passing game isn't perfect.

Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins make up a great one-two punch. They get better as they go and have demonstrated solid work ethic and leadership. Williams' decision to graduate next fall and wait on the NFL represents another brilliant recruiting job for Bielema.

It should be a fun spring for Bielema. He'll be hiring fewer coaches than the last three years. He'll get to enjoy the spring banquet circuit, something he does well. He commands the room in a grand way, with a dry wit and the ability to explain his coaching style and relationships with players. And, yes, he is a relationship guy. He bonds with players the best of any Arkansas head coach I've seen.

Frank Broyles was more of a CEO coach. Players did not come to his office. And, clearly, no one went to Bobby Petrino's office.

If all of this sounds too good to be true, just temper everything by remembering where the Hogs live, the SEC West. It served Arkansas well against Texas. The Longhorns were a light touch compared to Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss, Texas A&M and Mississippi State. It's hard to imagine writing that last sentence, but it's true.

I recall that when Arkansas went to the SEC, Orville Henry wrote it would be like playing Texas every week. That should be translated to the old Texas. That was not vintage Texas in NRG Stadium on Monday night. But I don't care. It was still great fun for Arkansans to hammer the Longhorns when they are down.

Some wanted one more touchdown when the Hogs had it inside the 5-yard line in the final seconds. It was just fine by me to get into the victory formation. It was fun seeing the last of the burnt orange leave the stadium. Too bad there were no Texans to listen to the cowboy hat band play the Eyes of Texas. That did my heart good, and so will the Hogs in 2015..

Hawgs Daily Top Stories