State of the Hogs: Observations

If you wanted to see talent, the idea was to find No. 55. That was a double treat Tuesday for the Arkansas football practice that was open to the media. Denver Kirkland and Jeremiah Ledbetter dripped with athletic ability in the trenches for the Razorbacks.

It took about 30 seconds to figure out that the Arkansas football team now has too very fine No. 55s. That's Denver Kirkland at left tackle on offense, and Jeremiah Ledbetter at defensive end. They went head to head in Tuesday's practice a few times in what most would call "good on good." It was all of that.

Ledbetter is the junior college transfer from ... well, take your pick. He played last year at Hutchinson, Kan., Community College. His family lives in Orlando, Fla., now, but Ledbetter played his high school ball at Gainesville, Ga.

The first step is all you need to see from Ledbetter. The Hogs are playing him at the three technique defensive tackle, the same spot that Darius Philon played the last two years. Standing next to Trey Flowers on the sideline was revealing Tuesday.

"He's got it," Flowers said. "I watched him in pass rush earlier. Yes, he's very quick, got that first step. I know we lost some guys, but the new guys are pretty good."

The guys the Hogs lost include include Flowers, waiting for the NFL draft. Ledbetter looks like a pro, too. He's still learning the UA scheme, but it appears he could play other spots besides the three technique. He probably could play in the spot previously held by Flowers.

It's that defensive line that pops when the players roll out to the practice field. Freshman Hjalte Froholdt looks like a grown man. He's big in the back end and has massive thighs. He's a powerful beast.

There's other physical specimens, too. Bijohn Jackson looks like a different player than last fall. Unfortunately, he also looks a little different than he did the first week of spring practice. He told reporters after practice Tuesday that he strayed from his diet on spring break. He reported 12 pounds heavier, going from 318 to 330.

It's a good looking squad overall. There's better size in the secondary with the likes of Josh Liddell and De'Andre Coley working at the two first team safety spots on Tuesday. Coley is around 205. Liddell is up to 213.

It's a treat to watch practice, especially what both Dan Enos and Jamel Singleton bring to the table in the offensive backfield. Enos is fast paced in the way he orchestrates the offense as playcaller and quarterbacks coach. It's easy to tell there is a mesh with senior quarterback Brandon Allen. Singleton, the running backs coach, has some eye popping drills.

Have you have ever seen a running back try to tote a football with a fine rope on the end, attached with a sliding dumb bell held by his coach? It's nothing I've ever seen before. Head coach Bret Bielema strolled over to a reporter watching that drill Tuesday with a question. What about that?

I told the head coach, "It's awesome." He replied, "I'd never seen it, either."

A walk-on running back was struggling with the drill, unable to keep the ball secure. It was frustrating for the young player. Bielema had some encouragement.

"Don't hate it, embrace it," the head coach said.

Singleton quickly said, "Keep that window closed," then added, "You are going to learn to take care of it now, then it will be easy in the fall."

The new offensive linemen are easy on the eyes, if you like big and fast. Jalen Merrick, Zach Rogers and Josh Allen look like SEC beasts. Merrick is a freak, with quick feet and size that reminds of Shawn Andrews. Line coach Sam Pittman is in obvious heaven. He had positives to shout all day.

There is an obvious move toward screen passes with the quickness now everywhere in this offensive line. There was one pass to Alex Collins in the flat that looked like a dead duck, until offensive guard Frank Ragnow flashed in front of Collins to pick up a cornerback and pop the play. The Hogs didn't have any guards with the foot speed for that horizontal dash last year.

But, they may have two with that kind of speed now. Ragnow is amazing with a big burst for a 315-pounder. And, Sebastian Tretola, the returnee at the other guard, is trying to get under 320 before spring finishes. He's quicker and just as nasty.

The linebackers flow nicely with Khalia Hackett the eye catcher at strongside linebacker. He may be tough to catch for Randy Ramsey, the early favorite in the fall to step after Braylon Mitchell's graduation. But it's Hackett that is piling up solid workouts. He was the best at that spot Tuesday. Josh Williams earned praise from Robb Smith, the top shelf defensive coordinator, for his play in the latest practice. There is no mistaking the way Brooks Ellis flies to space as the replacement for Martrell Spaight.

It's tough to see any separation from the three quarterbacks vying for the backup post behind Allen. Younger brother Austin Allen was first up with the twos, but Enos worked in Rafe Peavey and Ty Storey in quick fashion on Tuesday. They all had good and bad plays. There was not much consistency yet there behind the senior returnee with 36 career touchdown passes.

The receivers were not gaining much separation on a day that was ruled by the cornerbacks in passing drills. Those corners looked just the same as they did against Alabama last year when the Hogs blanketed Amari Cooper. Keon Hatcher worked free for a couple of plays, as did JoJo Robinson. But there was more than a couple of times that receivers coach Michael Smith challenged his guys to give it back to the corners. They did now and then, but not consistently.

The best of the receivers had to be the top tight ends, Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle. They even drew a pat on the butt from D.J. Dean on a play or two each.

There was no sign of kickers on Tuesday. They worked inside Walker Pavilion as Bielema put the rest of the team through their paces on the two outside practice fields on a 75-degree day.

I will say that the Hogs looked like the team that finished with victories over LSU, Ole Miss and Texas in the last four games and had the lead for more than one half against SEC East champ Missouri on the regular season finale. It's early, as they say. There have been just four spring practices and there was probably some rust on Tuesday for the first day after spring break. But it's a team that is light years ahead of this time last year -- and that's even with two new coaches in the offensive backfield.

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