State of the Hogs: The Best News

Picking one thing that was the best news of Arkansas spring drills was difficult. A top 10 list became the obvious choice in what was supposed to be a simple column. That's why it's clear Bret Bielema's third team is pretty good.

What's the best news about the Arkansas football team coming out of spring football? The idea for this column was going to produce something short and sweet, a column that could be written in quick fashion.

That was the question that I had for Bret Bielema's spring wrapup media briefing, but I decided I'd write it first and see how close I came to the answer from the Arkansas head coach. My summary produced an obvious conclusion, Bielema's team is going to be pretty good.

Generally, I go with some sort of top 10 list on these kind of questions.They are long and not so easy to write, so I thought maybe "best" would simplify the work. There was one problem, there was too much that could qualify as best.

So here we go, the top 10 list of best things from the Razorbacks' spring practice:

1. Brandon Allen's mesh with Dan Enos. Allen's quick adjustment to the new offensive coordinator has to be at the top of the list. Anytime you see this much progress at quarterback with a new quarterbacks coach, it's an exciting time. The accuracy has improved to the point that I'd think somewhere over 60 percent will be the norm for Allen next year. That's what you have with a fifth-year quarterback in general, but this time there are all the right pieces to go with a fine quarterback. It's the best news for Arkansas football in a long time.

2. Brooks Ellis could be 1A with Allen. He and Allen are the two best players on this team. Ellis slides from middle linebacker to the weakside playmaker spot in coordinator Robb Smith's defense. Martrell Spaight was spectacular in the will spot last year, leading the SEC in tackles with 126. He was the first All-SEC linebacker at Arkansas since Sam Olajubutu, Spaight's coach at Coffeyville. Here's the great news, Ellis may be a better player than Spaight and better in space. He's perfect for the tricks in Smith's defense that funnel everything to the weakside. He's going to have a great season. He has the size, speed and savvy to wreak havoc on SEC offenses. A pre-med student, he's meshed with Smith the same way Allen has Enos. It's a thing of beauty.

3. Defense. Yeah, that's a pretty sweet thing to list as second on this list of best. If you are good at quarterback and can stop teams in the SEC on defense, how many games can you win? Well, most of them. That's why I have hopes that Arkansas can do a lot better than last year's 7-6. They will be closer to November form in September after what I saw this spring from Smith's defense. They are much further along on the details of Smith's defense after this spring. If your defense is good in the spring, it's going to be great in the fall.

4. Defensive line. It's the best as far as overall depth in decades at Arkansas. I'd think there is more depth -- there may be as many as 10 who contribute next fall -- than any team I've seen in my 50 years of paying attention to the Hogs. To qualify that, I'm 60 and I probably don't remember anything before I was about 10. But I do remember the likes of Loyd Phillips, Jimmy Johnson, Jim Williams, Bobby Roper and Jim Finch from the 1964 team. The backups in '64 were Mickey Maroney, Jack Moran, Tommy Sain and Lee Johnson. I recall Dan Hampton, Jimmy Walker and Dale White in 1977. (Note: It was 20 years ago this month that Maroney, a Secret Service agent, died in the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City.)

5. Playmakers. This is an area that has quietly grown at Arkansas. Add Jeremy Sprinkle and Kody Walker to the list. He joins running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, tight end Hunter Henry and wide receiver Keon Hatcher. There's good news that Dominique Reed could be with the team as soon as mid-May as he's ahead of schedule in his academics at Coffeyville Community College. There are solid playmakers in this group and will be used correctly in some West Coast offense plays that Enos loves. I saw some of them this spring, including option routes for receivers, some concepts that were used under Bobby Petrino.

6. Offensive line. It's probably going to deep into this top 10 to list the offensive line, but I think that's why this team is so much better than Bielema's first two. Yes, this is going to be a good offensive line, but it may not be the BEST part of the football team as other areas have pulled even or passed Sam Pittman's trench warriors. Sebastian Tretola is so much better than last year. Some probably have forgotten, but he arrived on campus two days before fall practices began. He's had the last half year learning the offense and rebuilding his body. He's a different player. Frank Ragnow gives the Hogs speed and pulling ability for screens and sweeps as the new right guard. Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper give the Hogs better tackles than last year. Kirkland is the blind side protector at left tackle who should make Allen's job better.

7. Cornerbacks. I love them. I thought cornerback would be a strength last year and it was by November after Tevin Mitchel learned the nickel and Jared Collins and D.J. Dean stopped the deep passes. Henre' Toliver may be better than Mitchel as the nickel. Santos Ramirez is a dynamite strong safety, but he's also able to step up to cover a slot, something the Hogs didn't have last year when they really wanted four cover men against spread teams. Smith has that now. Plus, sophomore free safety Josh Liddell has emerged as a great communicator in the back end to give all of those corners confidence that they are lined up right. The Hogs need some freshmen to step up to provide depth at corner, but with four proven corners already, this is not a shaky position in the base.

8. Tight Ends. I've already listed Henry and Sprinkle in the playmaker category, but there is more to this position than the top two. It was clear that there is depth at this position, too. Alex Voelzke, Jack Kraus and Will Gragg showed up in scrimmages as solid players. Voelzke is the veteran with a nasty streak to help in blocking situations. Kraus and Gragg are still growing into the position. There is more on the way in the summer with Gragg's classmates C.J. O'Grady and Austin Cantrell set to arrive. Cantrell's legend is growing. He has starred in track and field this spring, anchoring a winning sprint relay and setting records in the shot and discus in a rare display of overall ability. He plays tight end with a linebackers mentality, mainly because he's as good at linebacker. This is a position that Enos loves to highlight, making him the perfect mesh with his head coach. Bielema loves tight ends as much as he does elite linemen.

9. Physical Presence. In talking with Robb Smith before a practice this spring, the discussion centered on just the overall "look" of the 2015 Razorbacks. He said, "We look the part don't we?" Indeed, this team looks like a big, strong, mean SEC team. It goes back to what strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert can do in his eight-week sessions. He's now had several with most of the members of this team, particularly a strong junior class. Bielema knows what to do with them after Herbert hands them off. The practices are physical, with lots of one-on-one battles between the offensive and defensive linemen. You don't have to scrimmage every day to be tough physically. This team has a physical presence that you don't miss. Watching one-on-one pass rush drills between the offensive and defensive linemen with an NFL scout late in spring practice while the rest of the guests at practice that day were on the other end watching the passing stuff was a real treat. The scout said, "He's a player, he's a player, he's a player, he's a player." The notes he took in that drill were long and covered many pages in his notebook. He called Kirkland, Tretola and Ragnow stunning. And, he was almost as impressed by freshman Zach Rogers, once the nation's top rated prospect at center. He ran out of room on his page for the defensive linemen. Tevin Beanum, Jeremiah Ledbetter and Hjalte Froholdt were new to him and they produced some wows from the veteran scout.

10. Leadership. It's something that you sometimes can't quantify, one of those intangibles that doesn't show up in the stats or the roster data. But these Hogs have a lot of that, despite losing such great leaders as Brey Cook, Martrell Spaight and Trey Flowers. Defensive end JaMichael Winston made the pre-game speech to the defense before the Red-White game and most said it smacked of Flowers. Allen is an obvious leader, set to be captain for a third time. Jonathan Williams and Keon Hatcher are top shelf leaders, too. There are several leaders in the offensive line, including Tretola. Ellis is a quiet leader on defense, but someone all players admire for the way he covers all the bases in the meeting room and on a personal basis. D.J. Dean and Rohan Gaines are vocal leaders. Liddell has leadership traits and his communication skills are natural, perhaps based on his old quarterback days in high school.

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