The five starters on the offensive line make up the cover of the Arkansas football media guide. I can't remember ever seeing such a thing, that's anywhere, not just in the Ozarks.
Generally, it's a star player, the head coach or sometimes even just a cool graphic with a logo or motto. But we've come to expect this kind of stuff from Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, utilizing his marketing degree from Iowa.
This is the guy who designed a play for left guard Sebastian Tretola to throw a pass in a trick play out of a formation that suggested a field goal. And, he used the play to hype his offensive line. Basically, Bielema said, come to Arkansas to play in the offensive line and you will be famous.
I get it. He's giving offensive line coach Sam Pittman, one of his best recruiters, more tools to find great prospects to block in the Arkansas pro style system.
But it could have been the defensive line on the cover of the media guide, except there just wouldn't be enough room. It would look like a team shot. But I've got a marketing slogan for Bielema. He's already trotted out the Front 4orce concept to describe another strength of the team, Rory Segrest's defensive line.
However, I've got something better. I saw the mass of SEC ready defensive linemen last spring during an open scrimmage. I quickly counted 12 different players making a stop near the line of scrimmage. How about “The Dirty Dozen?”
Little did I know that Segrest, the second-year defensive line coach, would eventually get 12 ready to play. That became clear last week when Bielema suggested that true freshman T.J. Smith was the next freshman to possibly come off the redshirt list.
For the opener this week against UTEP, Smith is not scheduled to play. But he's coming on, fast. The 6-3, 283-pounder from Moultrie, Ga., has turned heads in the last three weeks. I'm ready for him to be a story. His background is juicy.
Smith may be the most engaging player on the UA roster. He is multi talented. He plays the alto saxophone, performed in 10 theatrical performances in high school, loves to fish, hike and go to food tastings. He volunteers at the soup kitchen and sings country music.
He's the perfect final addition to that Dirty Dozen. And, there are other candidates, like Springdale's Jake Hall, a redshirt freshman. I figure Jamario Bell and Daytrieon Dean, both true freshman most assuredly on the redshirt list, are going to be candidates for playing time by next season.
I do think this defensive line depth is one of the keys to victory for the Hogs. It's first this week against UTEP and it will be on my Top 10 all season. The SEC is a defensive line league and it's one of the reasons I went with nine victories in my preseason prediction for the Hogs.
Here's a quick look at the other 11 members of the Dirty Dozen slated to get playing time against UTEP:
JaMichael Winston (6-4, 262, Jr., Pritchard, Ala.) is the bell cow on this defense and the man defensive coordinator Robb Smith goes to when he needs something fixed within the team. He calls him a Circle the Wagon player.
Deatrich Wise (6-5, 272, Jr., Carrolton, Texas) was ready for a breakout year 12 months ago when a knee sprain reduced his effectiveness for about two months. He's playmaker and full speed. Watch out. Sacks are sure to come this year.
DeMarcus Hodge (6-1, 340, Sr., Monroe, La.) has been the delight of fall camp. He told me this week that's he's much lighter than his program weight and will likely play at about 327 Saturday. He's always been tough to move, but now he can chase, too.
Hjalte Froholdt (6-4, 299, Fr., Svendborg, Denmark) has been dubbed the Great Dane by Robb Smith. It's perfect. As you can tell, I like nicknames. You need a Great Dane in the Dirty Dozen.
Armon Watts (6-5, 304, Fr., St. Louis, Mo.) earned a spot in the depth chart with an outstanding summer and fall. He's speedy and now massive. He is still getting better, too.
Taiwan Johnson (6-2, 290, Jr., Manvel, Texas) seems poised for just the kind of year that Darius Philon had last year. He's wonderful with his hands and feet and now has bulk to anchor the inside. He's blossomed into a great player.
Bijhon Jackson (6-2, 325, Soph., El Dorado) could start a lot of places in this line and some thought he might beat out Hodge. Jackson's presence lifted Hodge to a terrific level. Jackson has not disappointed and will play well. He'll give Johnson more rest to make this a position of strength on Smith's weakside triangle, just like last year.
Mitchell Loewen (6-5, 275, Sr., Lahaina, Hawaii) maybe the most versatile player on the team. He can play end, tackle, fullback, tight end. He is likely to be used both ways some this year and has fascinated NFL scouts trying to figure out where he fits best.
Tevin Beanum (6-4, 280, Soph., Forrest City) has been a fantastic player ever since he had an off-field blip last winter. Most thought Jeremiah Ledbetter would beat him out, but it's just another example of competition bringing out the best in everyone. He will make plays this year.
Jeremiah Ledbetter (6-3, 280, Jr., Orlando, Fla.) excels in pass rush situations and can move inside to play the three technique with Johnson and Jackson in Philon-like fashion. He's gotten better with technique and plays with a quick twitch. The junior college transfer was highly advertised when he arrived in the spring and has not disappointed. He's listed as a co-starter with Beanum.
Karl Roesler (6-1, 255, Soph., Louisville, Ky.) might not have the bulk of some of his line teammates, but he has a quick twitch and can rush the passer. He makes plays when he's on the field and has earned his way into the Dirty Dozen.
That's a fine list and I encourage you to identify players when they roll into the defensive line. It will be a challenging task. There may be times that more than four play at a time, since UTEP sometimes rolls a package called the Heavy Miner into the game. Arkansas has the personnel on defense to defend that tactic.
Now for the Top 10 keys to victory (or a Dirty Dozen for those counting):
1, Line Depth -- This defensive line can go toe to toe with anyone in the country, and will only get better. The offensive line has been called the strength of the team and for good reason, but I think the depth in the defensive line should be listed number one – and could end up on the cover of the media guide next season when Bielema may have a Baker's Dozen
2, Quarterback Brandon Allen -- The signal caller is always in my Top 10 keys. He's a fifth-year senior. I like the improvement he's made with Dan Enos as quarterbacks coach. His accuracy is much improved. Can Allen handle the complexity of UTEP's blitz scheme? Allen thinks Robb Smith's blitzes have been perfect preparation. He moves better in the pocket and takes advantage of his nice mobility. Look for Allen to sparkle.
3, Dan Enos -- I am fascinated to see what the new play caller brings to the table. Scrimmages have been scripted and situational. So this is the first time anyone has seen what Enos can do to add a little juice -- his word -- to the UA passing game. He's added run tags, a system of attaching a pass play to every run, and option routes to receivers. I wonder how much all of that will show up against UTEP.
4, Dominique Reed -- What does the junior college wideout bring to the offense? I think it's a key to the season, not just the first game. Reed is a blur and is a playmaker. He has the ability to create personal space on jump balls without it being called pass interference. It's the key to his ability to make big plays down the field. He has the ability to claim personal space in the air and should be able to do that against the Miners, suspect in the secondary. He's 6-4, but plays much taller. Bielema said he's like a 6-6 leaper when he's going after a jump ball and Allen knows where to put it with Reed.
5, Special Teams -- I wouldn't think a key field goal will be needed in this game, but how placekicker Cole Hedlund performs is still an important aspect of the opener. He needs a few chances to flush the butterflies. Kickers can do it in practice, but that doesn't mean they can in a game. I'm interested to see the redshirt freshman in front of a big crowd. The Hogs have worked hard on all aspects of the kicking game under new special teams coordinator Jamel Singleton. Can they be smooth in a first game. Hedlund wears No. 9. So does Santos Ramirez. Don't confuse them. Hedlund is the one, as Bielema says, looks like he's age 12.
6, Alex Collins -- The junior running back does look like a different person, just as Bielema has hinted. He's quicker and stronger after learning a few lessons in the first two seasons. He bought in to Ben Herbert's workout program early in the summer. And, the result is an after burner that might boost Collins to stardom.
7, Tight Ends -- I love this position almost as much as Bielema. Most talk about Hunter Henry and Jeremy Sprinkle, but expect roles for Alex Voelzke (perhaps at fullback/H-back) and Jack Kraus. I thought for sure true freshman Austin Cantrell would be in the picture, but the development of Kraus has put the Roland, Okla., do-it-all player on the redshirt list for the time being. Bielema said Sprinkle may be the surprise of the season.
8, Backfield Depth -- I am interested to see the backup running backs, particularly Rawleigh Williams. He's a heavier Felix Jones in my opinion. He is a craftsman as a running back, like Felix. I have no questions about Kody Walker. I think he'll star as the 260-pound beast back. I figure both Williams and Walker will get into the action and have significant contributions.
9, Antiseptic Play -- Can the Hogs play clean? There appears to be a lot of polish to this team. They've covered more details in camp, thanks to the elimination of two-a-days. That's given coaches more meeting time and walk-through sessions. It should pay off in a clean game. That's tough to accomplish in an opener, but that's my prediction.
10, Physicality -- This Top 10 has not been much about UTEP. The Miners do have some ability and they bring a physical presence to their level of play in Conference USA. But as Bielema has said several times, this one will be about Arkansas playing to its standards. I expect a team much further advanced than last year, particularly on defense. The Miners are 1-32 on the road against Top 25 foes. You have to go all the way back to 1974 to find a road upset, against No. 14 Arizona State. There won't be one this time. UTEP is beat up and young in the secondary. Look for some big plays by the Hogs. But in general, can the Hogs prove to be the more physical team.
11, Guards on the Perimeter -- I know it's a Top 10, but I can't help myself. I'm going for a Dirty Dozen. If there is something down and dirty about this Arkansas team, it has to be the offensive line, most notably the guards, Sebastian Tretola and Frank Ragnow. Watch for them on pulling plays and screens. Ragnow will blow someone up on the outside at some point in this game. Ragnow is another whom Bielema predicts a breakout season.
12, Mike Linebacker -- One of the unknowns in preseason camp has been middle linebacker, vacated when Brooks Ellis moved to the weakside slot to replace Martrell Spaight. I have no questions about Ellis on the outside, but it's been a job to fill that middle linebacker spot. Khalia Hackett tried it in the first two weeks of preseason camp with mixed results. Josh Williams flipped with Hackett, moving from strongside to middle linebacker with a galvanizing effect for the linebacker group. Most assuredly, UTEP will try to test Williams and Hackett. I suspect they'll hold up just fine.