The last to begin spring practice in the SEC will try to find a way to ignite a fast start next fall. That's the big question Arkansas fans want answered from Bret Bielema, can he find a way to add good play early to what has been good play late the last two seasons?
Bret Bielema has mentioned that several times this winter on the Razorback Club circuit. There's no doubt that Bielema understands how to produce solid play in November.
But there is no doubt that everyone remembers September, too. They remember the tough start last year with losses to Toledo, Texas Tech and Texas A&M. Yes, there was the rebound to a 5-3 SEC record and an 8-5 finish with victories in six of the last seven.
Louisiana Tech is the opener on Sept. 3, but it's the Sept. 10 trip to Fort Worth to play a good TCU team that looms large for Bielema's fourth team.
“That's one of the best programs in the country year in and year out,” Bielema said last week. “We know Louisiana Tech has a solid team, then to play TCU in the second week, that's a tough early schedule. We want to play better early this year.”
It's with that in mind that the Hogs open spring drills Tuesday, March 29, with the spring game set for Saturday, April 22. There will be four workouts the first week, then three per week over the final three weeks. Bielema has not announced which workouts might be open to the public.
So how does Bielema start fast with a trip to Texas Christian looming in the second week of the season? Most point to the battle at quarterback where Austin Allen will try to replace older brother Brandon as the starter.
Don't ever minimize the importance of experience at quarterback, but what might be more important could be finding the right combination in the offensive line after losing Denver Kirkland, Sebastian Tretola and Mitch Smothers, along with assistant coach Sam Pittman, their mentor.
There's been a long winter to build some chemistry with new O-line coach Kurt Anderson with a solid group of returnees up front. The key will be to find the replacement for Smothers, a solid center the last two seasons.
In Bielema's pro-style offense, the center makes a lot of the protection calls. It's a critical position. Bielema has had experience at that spot his first three seasons in Travis Swanson, a fifth-year senior, followed by Smothers, playing his fourth and fifth seasons.
Zach Rogers was listed as the backup to Smothers last year as a first-year player and he did see limited action. But it's not a given that Rogers will end up as the starter. Bielema suggested on pro day a week ago that Frank Ragnow, Hjalte Froholdt and Deion Malone will all snap some this spring.
Ragnow played quite a bit at center as a true freshman in relief of Smothers two years ago, then moved to right guard where he was very good the last half of the season. Ragnow will play both guard and center this spring.
Bielema seems fascinated with the prospects of Froholdt at center. He talked about his high intelligence on pro day. Froholdt is the Danish sophomore with size and athletic ability. He just lacks football experience. He played some at defensive tackle as a true freshman and was moved to the offensive line this winter. He'll likely play guard.
“But I want to see him snap,” Bielema said of Froholdt. “I think he might can play center and he's so smart.”
Dan Skipper will stay at right tackle. Brian Wallace, a third-year sophomore, served as his backup there last year. He'll move to left tackle, the spot Skipper played two years ago. Wallace is considered one of the top line prospects on the squad and it was a given that he'd man one of the starting spots with the loss of Kirkland, Tretola and Smothers.
Other prospects at tackle are redshirt freshman Colton Jackson and third-year sophomore Johnny Gibson. Gibson was Kirkland's backup at left tackle last year. Jackson, big and fast, sparkled in bowl practices and turned heads this winter in Ben Herbert's strength and conditioning program.
There are solid candidates at guard, too. The best, along with Ragnow, would be Malone, the junior college transfer and a mid-term arrival. Malone was as good as advertised in the winter program. He has flashed athletic ability and football smarts. It would be a surprise if Malone didn't start.
Bielema has been impressed with what he's seen with his O-line group as it meshed with Anderson, their new coach. Bielema said, “Kurt has them wrapped around his finger.”
Interestingly, Bielema thinks Anderson will cure some problems in the offensive line with improved technique. Anderson is considered an elite technician and one of the reasons Bielema hired him away from the Buffalo Bills.
“I think we will be better in technique under Kurt,” Bielema said. “There were some things we needed to improve as far as our run blocking.”
Tight end is a spot that bears watching in the spring. Gone is the nation's top player, Mackey Award winner Hunter Henry, a likely first round draft pick. Jeremy Sprinkle returns after a big role late in the season as more teams doubled Henry. But who will pick up the slack if Sprinkle attracts more attention?
The Hogs have recruited well at tight end. They redshirted three blue chippers in the 2015 class in Will Gragg, Austin Cantrell and C.J. O'Grady. They are all a little different. Cantrell is coveted as an H-back type with blocking skills at the fullback slot. Gragg is a deluxe pass catcher and perhaps the fastest. Gragg might be the best at the in-line blocking skills among the three. Jack Kraus will miss the spring after ACL surgery in January.
There are no questions at wide receiver, where Drew Morgan, Dominique Reed, Jared Cornelius and Cody Hollister all blossomed in the second half of the season. Keon Hatcher, out last year with a broken foot, returns to give the Hogs another proven wideout.
The running back position may have taken the biggest hit when Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, both with a year of eligibility left, went to the NFL draft. The best fullback was true freshman Kenderick Jackson, now at middle linebacker.
Kody Walker and Rawleigh Williams return at running back, but Walker must shed some pounds to make himself a more elusive target. Williams is returning from neck surgery after the Auburn game. He's been given medical clearance, but will sit out of full contact in the spring.
“Rawleigh has been cleared by two doctors,” Bielema said. “But I just am not going to put him through contact this spring. He has looked great. He's 228 pounds and is running great.
“We want Kody to lose a few pounds, get down to closer to 250. We think that will help him.”
Damon “Duwop” Mitchell has moved from wide receiver to running back with impressive results as far as the winter program. He's got the athletic ability and frame to help. He figured into the running game last year on wide receiver sweeps.
Juwan Day and Denzell Evans are the other scholarship running backs. Day is coming off two ACL knee surgeries. He had a solid bowl camp and may be ready to contribute.
There will be a new running backs coach for the second straight season. Jemal Singleton left for the NFL and veteran assistant Reggie Mitchell took that spot.
Of course, it figures that top Texas signee Devwah Whaley, a speedy 210-pounder will be in the rotation as soon as he arrives in August. He's big, elusive and has the extra gear.
It's a good looking offense waiting for someone to step in at quarterback after Brandon Allen exploded with a great senior season. It likely will be his younger brother. The best take on how it's going to work out came from Brandon on pro day.
“I think everyone is going to see that this is going to be a good offense because of all the weapons around the quarterback,” Brandon said. “Austin is the same player I was, the same tools. He throws it like I throw it. He can make all of the throws. And, he's going to have very good players around him. It's all in place for him.”
But it's not a cinch that Austin will be the man. He'll have to hold off a hard charging group of quarterbacks. Rafe Peavy, Ty Storey and Ricky Town all did some good things in bowl practices. Town is the transfer from Southern Cal many think will ultimately challenge Allen, although incoming freshman Cole Kelley has the strongest arm of all of them. Town and Kelley will have to learn the system, a complex pro offense with lots of checks and reads. That's likely the reason Austin Allen will emerge as the starter.
But make no mistake about this, there are weapons for those quarterbacks to utilize. The receivers may be the best group in the SEC, a year after some wondered if there were any receivers at all in Fayetteville. Morgan was as good as anyone in the last half of the season. So was Sprinkle at tight end.
But can Austin Allen execute the run tags, or checks to passes that his older brother ran so well to keep the pressure off of the running game down the stretch? That will be the question to be answered in the spring. Or, will any of the younger quarterbacks display an ability to operate those checks and get the protections correct as Brandon Allen did so well as a fifth-year senior?
Another big question, will the Hogs have to win scoring duels to beat the spread teams in the SEC West? One of the answers might be the arrival of new secondary coach Paul Rhoads, the head coach at Iowa State the last seven seasons. He has much experience against the spreads in the Big 12 and was the man spread guru Rich Rodriguez mentioned as having expertise in that area of defense when Bielema sought advice.
The secondary lost only one starter, safety Rohan Gaines. But the best player, cornerback DJ Dean, is out with foot surgery for the spring. Rhoads does have 17 players in his meeting room. He said he's seen talent and skill in the winter workouts, but he'll ask them to change stance and technique this spring.
“The goal is simple, just one word,” Rhoads said. “Improvement. We want to improve every area.”
Defensive coordinator Robb Smith said he's seen that in a short time under Rhoads. He called his new secondary coach a deluxe teacher.
The key to a better pass defense might be a better pass rush. Deatrich Wise was the SEC's top sack man for the eight conference games last year. He was solid in the second half of the season. He's emerged as a leader in the winter program, drawing praise from Bielema on his Razorback Club speaking tour.
Wise is probably the most talented veteran on the squad, but hasn't always played at a top level. If he's hit his stride finally, it could make a big difference in the defense.
True freshman McTelvin “Sosa” Agim has also turned heads this winter. Bielema calls him “as good as advertised” and simply “special.” Agim played at 6-3, 265-pounds as a senior at Hope. He's now at 290 and has had to buy a new wardrobe.
“I don't think he can wear anything he brought to school,” Bielema said. “He needs to keep getting in better condition. His lungs have not caught up to his new weight just yet, but he's working hard to get that done.
“What we've seen is that he wants to learn. He asks questions. He wants to be very good.”
One of the bright spots this winter has been the return of linebacker Randy Ramsey, not on campus last fall after flunking out as a true freshman. Ramsey has paid his own way and demonstrated a big desire to improve his academics.
“He's got As and Bs,” Bielema said. “He's not a guy I want to give a lot of sugar, but he's earning it. I've been impressed with the way he's worked in academics and in everything.”
Ramsey has SEC talent. He's 6-4 with long arms and could cure what ailed the Hogs as far as linebacker play in space.
Sophomore Dre Greenlaw, a freshman All-American, reached 240 pounds this winter. Bielema called it good weight, but admitted they might want the Fayetteville product to practice this spring closer to 235 pounds.
The bell cow of the defense is middle linebacker, Brooks Ellis. He'll start for the fourth straight season. How much help he gets from Ramsey, Greenlaw and Jackson could be a big key to the defense. Jackson was considered a blue chip prospect at inside linebacker, but had to help at fullback last season. He's fast with a hitter's attitude. He'll help the defense.
There are lots of veterans up front, led by Jeremiah Ledbetter, Taiwan Johnson, Bijohn Jackson, JaMichael Winston and Karl Roesler. Redshirt freshman T.J. Smith as a stud at tackle, one of the reasons Froholdt could move to offense.
The kicking game will get a hard look in the spring. Bielema will put the pressure on Cole Hedlund, Adam McFain and Lane Saling, noting that only two will be invited to fall camp. There will be extensive work on field goal protection after four kicks were blocked last season.