State of the Hogs: A Big Number

The Arkansas football team is rolling along smoothly as July hits. If things continue, this prognosticator could pick a double digit number when preseason camp arrives. Things look good for Bret Bielema's third team in the Ozarks.

Is this the year for Bret Bielema's big push at Arkansas? Or will it come in year four or five?

I can see areas where the Razorbacks need more depth, particularly at linebacker. They will need come throughs at middle linebacker from Khalia Hackett, Josh Harris and Kendrick Jackson to make the move of Brooks Ellis to the weakside a master stroke for coordinator Robb Smith.

But there is little doubt in my mind that the offense will make a jump this season with fifth-year senior Brandon Allen operating behind the best offensive line since 2010 when DeMarcus Love anchored a unit which blocked Knile Davis to 1,322 yards.

It's the ability on both sides of the line that excites about the 2015 Razorbacks. I like the offensive front from right to left of Dan Skipper, Frank Ragnow, Mitch Smothers, Sebastian Tretola and Denver Kirkland. I'm just as pumped about the overall depth and ability of the defensive front with JaMichael Winston, DeMarcus Hodge, Taiwan Johnson and Tevin Beanum.

It's those backups on the defensive side of Deatrich Wise, Bijhon Jackson, Hjalte Froholdt and Jeremiah Ledbetter that may make this team special. It's depth in the defensive line that Bielema cited as the difference between his old league and the Southeastern Conference.

If you've got depth in the defensive front, the fourth quarter becomes doable. The ability to rotate defensive linemen was not there altogether in Bielema's first two seasons. It is now. There are even some in the third group with the ability to help. Mitch Loewen, Armon Watts, Karl Roesler and Brandon Lewis may all get snaps. Don't rule out true freshmen Daytrieon Dean and Jamario Bell finding their way into the mix.

I can't remember when there were this many candidates for playing time in the defensive front. Sam Pittman, the veteran offensive line coach, told me in late May that he was a bit surprised by the overall talent in the defensive front as they rolled through spring drills. Pittman praises Rory Segrest.

“What he's done with them is incredible,” Pittman said. “I saw them every day. He coached those kids up.

“But I'm going to say they are more talented than I thought. Robb does a good job with the scheme as far as disguising things and faking blitzes to put you on your heels as an offensive line. But those guys are a lot more talented than what I believed. I wouldn't have believed what they have done with that group.

“We worked against them every day in one-on-one and I think our (offensive line) is pretty good. Some days we'd win like I expected. I thought we should have been ahead of them in the spring. But there were a lot of days we didn't win.”

There's a lot of focus on what speedster Dominique Reed can bring to the wideout group in August. I am told he is as good as advertised. But it will likely come down to what the Hogs can do up front when they roll into the SEC schedule.

Can the Hogs block third-and-1? Or do they have to rely on the creativity of Dan Enos as the new playcaller?

Can the Hogs load up with Smothers, Tretola and Kirkland on that left side and create mismatches with pure physical presence?

I think they can where they couldn't the past two seasons under Bielema. It's just the natural maturation of those offensive linemen that can be the difference in another 6-6 against a brutal SEC West gauntlet or a jump to 8-4.

If Reed makes a big splash, it could be better than 8-4. I can see this team winning nine games, or breaking through to double digits.

I do not think the defense will be a liability. I see so many national pundits point to the loss of Martrell Spaight, Trey Flowers and Darius Philon as the reason the Hogs will struggle to beat last year's mark by much. I think this defense will be as good as the one that dominated late in the season. The secondary is improved. The defensive front might surprise everyone.

This should be a fun season for Allen. He's got more help. There's nothing like a quarterback with winning linemen to take him to new heights.

In short, this Arkansas team will be hard to beat. Mainly, I don't think it will beat itself. This is a secondary that will limit big plays. And, I think the Hogs will win the turnover battle with the new emphasis that Jemal Singleton has placed on ball security with the running backs. Remember, Allen did not throw one interception in the spring.

The tough part is the schedule. Because the Hogs scheduled three nonconference games to open the season and wanted an open date before Auburn, there is the nasty three-game stretch of Texas A&M, Tennessee and Alabama, none in the state of Arkansas.

The middle game in that swing, at Tennessee on Oct. 3, looks like the critical game in that stretch. I expect the Hogs to win at Arlington against the Aggies, then roll into Knoxville at 5-0. They'll likely be a top 20 team by then. The momentum of a victory over the Vols should provide the spring board for a successful season.

What's successful? It could be that double digit win total that I mentioned earlier? Certainly, that would be a break through that puts Bielema where he wants with the five star recruits that seemed to have eluded him except in the offensive line.

I think Allen will have a wonderful season. I thought his play against Texas, most notably at the end of the first half, was a sign of more big things.

Running back Jonathan Williams thinks his quarterback has the playbook and playcaller to make a big difference. The addition of screens, more pulling plays and some option routes in the passing game are the things Williams cites. What he saw his quarterback do behind closed doors in the spring give reason for all of that optimism.

The early part of the summer has gone smoothly. I'm not ready to make any concrete predictions on the season. I always wait for the middle of August to put out my number for the season. But it's going to be a bigger number, I'm convinced of that.

It's kind of like all of those linemen, it's going to be big and beautiful.

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