Dave Van Horn explained again about why some of the mid majors call two years in advance about playing early games at Arkansas. It's clear they look down the road and think they'll have a good team.
Perhaps Van Horn feels the same about the prospects at Arkansas for the future with some of the games the Arkansas coach has scheduled in coming years. Next year the Hogs are going to play in a tournament in Frisco, Texas that reads like a regional with Arizona, Nebraska and Oklahoma State. Then, in 2018, Van Horn will take the Hogs to Southern Cal for three games, with the Trojans returning the trip in 2019 at Baum Stadium. The Hogs will also go to a tournament in San Diego in 2019.
Van Horn's analysis on why certain teams pick the Hogs for season opening series came up again at the start of his run through on the 2016 Arkansas schedule. He said Central Michigan, the Feb. 19 opener for the Hogs, is loaded with all three conference starters, five solid position players and is picked to repeat as Mid-American Conference champs.
"They are a top 100 RPI team," Van Horn said. "There is a reason a coach there called two years ago about playing us. He thinks they will be good. They will be a challenge. Sure, we will have been outside more, but they won't be scared."
There is are other challenging non-conference games on the '16 schedule. The Hogs will play Rice, Houston and Texas Tech in Houston. There are two games with Gonzaga, the team that started the early-season problems last year for the Hogs. And, there are home-and-home games with Oklahoma State and Missouri State, both picked to win their leagues.
"Those are good teams," Van Horn said. "We will have some real battles and that doesn't even cover the SEC teams coming here. Florida is No. 1 in every poll and major league teams are assigning scouts to follow them in every game. They are that good. Their pitching is big league. Texas A&M is an older team, full of juniors and seniors and in every top five. There are 10 teams from our league in one of the polls.
"But we are trying to just take it one week at a time. That's all I ask our guys to do. It's a new year and it's a tough schedule, as usual. We've got a lot of question marks, but we have some experience and a lot of options."
Through the first weekend of practice, the Hogs are healthy. Carson Shaddy has sparkled with two home runs in scrimmages. The Fayetteville sophomore is bouncing back after Tommy John surgery in June.
"He can hit," Van Horn said. "He's going to be a tough out. He could play third, second, short, outfield or catch. He could be a designated hitter, but he's going to probably be in the lineup."
The Hogs lost one of their best outfield trios in school history in Andrew Benintendi, Tyler Spoon and Joe Serrano. It appears that two of those spots have been solidified. Luke Bonfield is the likely starter in left field and Chad Spanberger in right field.
"Luke may be our most improved player," Van Horn said. "He was a below average outfielder last year and he's raised his play a lot. And he can hit."
Bonfield was considered a top prospect as a freshman last year, but broke his ankle in the first fall scrimmage. He struggled at the plate all year, ending up at .177.
"He's worked hard," Van Horn said. "He's 15 pounds bigger and was solid at the plate in the fall. He's done well with some new approaches."
Bonfield (6-3, 200) shortened his stride, eliminated most of a big leg kick and has regained the power to all fields that made him a high draft pick out of IMG Academy.
"He was always good as far as his eye for the strike zone and it's even better," Van Horn said. "And, he is as hard of a worker as we have. You can stick with someone who works this hard. He's calmed down his approach at the plate as far as that leg kick and he's so much better defensively. He's got his swing back."
Spanberger (6-3, 235) is one of the most physically imposing players on the field. He's forced the school to protect a massive new digital big screen in right center.
"He keeps hitting shots off the scoreboard, so we put up a net," Van Horn said. "He's earned the job in right. There's competition, but we would love to keep him out there because he's such a threat."
That's in reference to the potential to platoon outfielders with more depth. Spanberger is a lefty hitter, but Van Horn said they may let him hit against lefty pitching, too.
"There is just a lot of power there with him," Van Horn said. "We could platoon, but we may not start out that way. We will see how that evolves as far as platooning."
Van Horn's early thoughts are that freshman outfielder Eric Cole will bat leadoff, possibly as the designated hitter. He could also wind up playing center field. Juco transfer Jake Arledge is also a candidate to play center, along with Clark Eagan, the first baseman last year.
"Clark can play a lot of spots, third or outfield," Van Horn said. "But he may play first again. He could play center.
"Arledge is a juco guy who is from California. I'm sure they worked hard in junior college, but not like we do here. He had to learn a few things. We had to push him a little. He had to learn to do it our way. Coach (Dave) Jorn likes to ride him a little."
What about starting pitching?
"If we played this weekend, we'd open with Keaton McKinney and Dominic Taccolini," Van Horn said. "Keaton pitched in our scrimmage this weekend and he looked good."
There is thought that McKinney could have a slider to go with his dominating combination of fast ball-changeup.
"If he has a breaking ball, he will jump on the draft boards," Van Horn said. "He's 100 percent."
McKinney is coming off hip surgery. With a healthy lower body push now, Van Horn thinks his fast ball will have more velocity.
What about a third starter?
"We have some options," Van Horn said. "It could be one of our freshmen. Weston Rogers gives us a lefty with three pitches. Blaine Knight, another freshman, could be a starter, too. I'd like to have a lefty starter some place in there."
Zach Jackson appears to be destined to pitch at the back end of the bullpen again. Jackson would like to starty, but Van Horn said it's clear the team would be better with him as a closer.
"He told me face to face that he doesn't care," Van Horn said. "He said he'll do whatever helps the team win. I know he means it.
"I think we'll be better if we can use him two or three times each week. And, you like to have someone formidable in the bullpen."
Van Horn told the crowd that he was still working through his mind what to do with Jackson, then turned to pitching coach Dave Jorn for thoughts. Jorn, sitting two tables form the podium, didn't hesitate by saying, "Bullpen." Van Horn said, "So there you have it."
Van Horn added, "He has the ability to start but if his pitch count gets up, he may be out by the fifth inning. I like him at the end."
Van Horn joked about the new digital high definition scoreboard.
"I've told our guys to wash their face and brush their teeth," he said. "And, I know I better do that, too. It's that good. And, we will have to be careful of what we say. You can read lips with that thing."
It will help what's always been a great atmosphere at Baum Stadium where the Hogs rank second nationally in attendance.
"I hear opposing coaches talk about how much they enjoy our atmosphere," he said. "I don't know how to take that. I think maybe (fans) need to get on them a little more."
Van Horn paid tribute to last year's team, 15-15 early in conference play, but with 40 wins and a trip to the College World Series at the end.
"It was a fun team," he said. "It was a special year. I learned a lot about people."
Van Horn is glad to have Rick Nomura back for his senior season. The junior college transfer was on the draft board for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"He got a call and they said they might take him in the 25th round," Van Horn said. "They talked to him about paying him six figures. So he called his dad and they talked. He said he thought he should come back. So Rick called me and asked for a bigger scholarship. I told him we'd already designated him for more. I don't ever try to talk them out of signing, but I'm glad he came back."