State of the Hogs: Fine with Nine

Hawgs Illustrated publisher Clay Henry puts a number on the 2015 Arkansas football season. He's fine with nine.

There is nothing scientific about the way I make a prediction on the record for the Arkansas football season. It's feel.

As a lady in a church choir who was not swaying along with the rest of the singers told me once, either you feel it or you don't.

I feel it pretty good right now. But there is no sway in the thoughts that have been building all summer about the 2015 Razorbacks. These Hogs are going to be good.

I didn't sway when Jonathan Williams went down to a foot ligament tear. In fact, my feel for the running back group assigned to new assistant Jamel Singleton is stronger now than before Williams underwent surgery that will probably keep him out for the regular season.

After watching two scrimmages, Singleton has more than enough to absorb the loss of Williams. Alex Collins looks like what he was advertised to be two years ago, the best running back from the state of Florida. Kody Walker is a 260-pound beast. True freshman Rawleigh Williams looks like a thicker version of Felix Jones.

Additionally, Denzell Evans looks to be a solid reserve and there is word this week that Juan Day will return from ACL surgery sooner rather than later, possibly by the Texas A&M game.

It's more than enough backfield goodies to make it through an SEC season and that's a mouthful. It's actually better than my favorite fly fishing lunch, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with a Little Debbies oatmeal crème pie.

That's not the best of the August news. I am most excited that Austin Allen is finally ready to play. That gives new playcaller Dan Enos some freedom to take some chances with Brandon Allen's obvious mobility. I don't know that it's in the plans, but I think Enos can call a quarterback keeper now.

I'm like the Vegas oddsmakers that have gone back and forth between eight and nine victories for this Arkansas team. The current over-under is mostly eight, but with some 8.5 in some big-money betting shops in Nevada.

I'm going with nine and it's because I have fewer unknowns about this Arkansas team than any I've covered in a long time. I'll cover some on both ends of the spectrum to make the argument for nine.

As far as the knowns, I see more speed and ability at wide receiver. Dominique Reed and JoJo Robinson bring the much needed ability to the passing game that has been missing the last few seasons, ever since Jarius Wright and Joe Adams finished.

Can you imagine a safety trying to figure out how to help a corner with Reed trotting out of the huddle on the same side as the bell cow receiver, senior Keon Hatcher? Robb Smith said Thursday that Reed's speed “takes the top off” of the defense and “creates mismatches.” A safety is going to have to back up a few steps and that provides some gravy for the UA running game.

I wasn't sure Reed was a known commodity all summer. Some even questioned if the juco transfer would make it to campus, but never anyone in the Arkansas camp. He's made it and he knows the offense remarkably well for a receiver without a spring practice. Put him at the top of the “known” list.

The other converted known is will linebacker Dre Greenlaw, the converted safety who played about 10 positions at Fayetteville High School. That was an unknown until about three weeks ago. Robb Smith thinks Greenlaw is a can't miss linebacker prospect now and there were some who wondered if there could be a buy-in for Greenlaw other than safety. Boom. Greenlaw is all in.

I wondered about free safety. That was an unknown for me as recently as spring practice. Sure, Josh Liddell performed well against Texas in the bowl game as a sub for suspended Rohan Gaines. He's one of the defense's better players now. He's a known commodity.

The unknowns are still there, but not so many. Depth at linebacker is an issue, but I feel better about this than when Sam Olajubutu came out of nowhere to earn All-SEC honors. I'm starting to get good vibes even at middle linebacker when it might be by committee.

Josh Harris continues to turn heads. You may not can find him all the time because he's probably not as tall as his 5-10 program height. He's not much taller than Olajubutu, probably about 5-7. But Harris has made plays and forced Khalia Hackett, the best looking mike linebacker, to step up or lose his spot.

I loved it when head coach Bret Bielema, an old linebackers coach, put a stripe on Hackett's helmet to prove when he turned his head to follow the pulling guard. No, there will not be any stripes on game day, but it's a good practice trick and it aided Hackett's development.

The offensive line has some unknowns, but not in the starting lineup. I worried a little about Denver Kirkland's move to left tackle. Could he protect the blind side? It appeared to be an issue for the first scrimmage, but not since.

The backup for Kirkland is a bit of an unknown, walk-on Johnny Gibson. He's not quite ready to play, but with Brian Wallace emerging as a fine reserve at right tackle, Dan Skipper could flip to his spot of last year if Kirkland goes down. Skipper could also move to guard to allow Frank Ragnow, the starter on the right side, to flip to center if something happened to Mitch Smothers. Ragnow could be an elite SEC center if he played it every day.

I want to see Cole Hedlund do it in a game. So I still put kicking game as a bit of an unknown. College football history is littered with kickers who did it in practice, but didn't in the fourth quarter of a crucial game. Hedlund – and at times Adam McFain and Lane Saling – look the part. But it will be good when they win in the SEC West with a big kick late in the game.

The biggest unknown has to be Enos. How does he do with in-game adjustments? Bielema thinks Enos is perfect for what the Hogs needed and expects his “personality” to come out as he gets a feel for this team and the opposition, too.

If he's anything close to defensive coordinator Robb Smith, the Hogs will get to nine victories and perhaps more. The players love both their coordinators. And, Bielema's staff seems to have a perfect mesh, too.

The unknown for me is the schedule. I know enough about this Arkansas team to jump out on the nine-victory limb. But, there are good reports out of most every SEC camp. I will say I've seen more injuries elsewhere than at Arkansas.

Someone outside of Arkansas wondered if it was because Bielema has softened in his approach this August. That's in obvious reference to the elimination of two-a-days in the Ozark. It's a dicey plan because if the wins don't follow, everyone will point to that. Coaches don't like to be second guessed, but Bielema seems certain that the short injury list and the addition of meeting time and walk through sessions will produce big-time fruit. But I'm not sure anything the Hogs did the last three weeks has been soft.

Enos and Smith were both given chances Thursday to second guess the lack of two-a-days. Enos said it was as tough as any camp in his experience and that covers a lot of tough Augusts at Michigan State. Smith thinks the Hogs covered more things in walk throughs and meetings than in past camps and that will continue the trend last year to eliminate big plays.

The last unknown would be the play of Brandon Allen in the fourth quarter. Can the fifth-year senior make more plays? Can he lead a game-winning drive?

I think Allen is ready to step up on the big stage of the SEC West and do it in road games. I love fifth-year seniors at quarterback with a loaded offensive line. There are good players all around him and more at wide receiver. I love the tight end combination of Hunter Henry, Jeremy Sprinkle, Alex Voelzke and Jack Kraus. So does Enos.

I expect there to be more big plays. Some of them will come from Collins, now with an after burner that was sorely needed his first two seasons.

I'm not nervous about going with nine. I'm probably closer to 10 than I am to eight. I feel better about this team than I did at 7-6 ahead of last year. And, yes, I went with 6-6 and called it seven with a bowl victory.

Finally, it's that deep defensive line that makes me the most comfortable about nine. I tend to hover around the defensive line at practice. When the quarterbacks, receivers and defensive backs are on one end, I tend to float to the other end for the one-on-one battles with the O-line and the defense.

Lately, there have been five to six scouts around me for those line sessions. They see lots of NFL prospects. So do I. It's a good-looking group of SEC linemen. You can get excited watching the drills. It doesn't matter if they are starters or backups, they are big and athletic.

I especially like watching the two 55s, Jeremiah Ledbetter at defensive end and Kirkland at offensive tackle. DeMarcus Hodge and Taiwan Johnson are ready for a spectacular season as the two inside tackles and there is depth everywhere on that defensive front. There is help beyond the two deep with Mitch Loewen and Karl Roesler.

That's where you see the work of strength and conditioning coach Ben Herbert from the last three summers. I recall that Bielema's first UA defensive coordinator said that Herbert's ability wouldn't show up so much in year one, but in year three and beyond. I see it now. It's the biggest known on my list now.

Nothing will be easy. There will be plenty of close games for the Hogs in the SEC West, but more of them will go their way this time.

Yes, I'm excited. I've felt like this since last November. I recall getting to write the demise of the Longhorns at halftime of the Texas Bowl. No, it wasn't vintage Texas. But it's time everyone realizes that this is close to being vintage Arkansas. I think it's going to be fun, and, yes, better than peanut butter and jelly.


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