Jason Ivester

State of the Hogs: 2016 Expectations High

What are your expectations for the 2016 Arkansas football season? They are starting to fall in place for Hawgs Illustrated publisher Clay Henry.

The more I listen to Bret Bielema talk about 2016, the more excited I become about the prospects for a break through season.

Then, I think back to where I was at this point last year. I was feeling the same thing and there was a three-game losing streak to Toledo, Texas Tech and Texas A&M to bring everyone back to ground zero.

Well, the Hogs did have a victory over Texas-El Paso to open the season, but a 1-3 start was as close to ground zero as I ever want to be again. All of this was to start year three of the Bielema program.

Things began to turn the next week with a solid victory at Tennessee. There were also road wins at Ole Miss and LSU to highlight a 6-1 finish.

So do I fall for the hype again? Do I go with Bielema when he points to a solid senior class as reason for optimism?

This past week at SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla., Bielema told anyone who would listen that he's pumped about his next team. He said in his first three seasons there have been only the most obvious choices to pick from to fill out the three players going to SEC media interviews in July. He said he's got lots of players to take this year.

"I only take seniors," he said. "The first three years, it was clear to everyone who those three would be going to Birmingham. Now, there are just a lot of seniors to look at to take there.

"On offense, you have Jeremy Sprinkle, Dan Skipper, Kody Walker, Drew Morgan, Keon Hatcher, Cody Hollister and you might throw in Frank Ragnow. He's not a senior, but it's his last go round probably. He's likely going to be a draft pick.

"Then, you look on defense, there are a lot of choices, too. You have Deatrich Wise, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Taiwan Johnson, JaMichael Winston, Brooks Ellis, Jared Collins and D.J. Dean."

When you think about that group of seniors, you do feel the reason for excitement. Bielema, as do most coaches, believes that you are only as good as your seniors. If a team is going to make a run, it's probably going to be because of solid play from seniors.

Really, this is the first team under Bielema that I feel like is going to be what I thought would be his strength when he came from Wisconsin. I thought the Hogs would be good on defense. I thought they were in the spring. It was the best I'd seen a Bielema defense look in the spring.

Yes, the Hogs were good on defense to end the 2015 season. But they weren't anything special in the spring of 2015. Those two shutouts caught me be surprise.

I won't be surprised by a shutout this coming season. How do you suddenly take almost the same players from the year before and be good on defense when they weren't so much superior at any time the year before? That's what I wanted to know from defensive coordinator Robb Smith in the middle of May. He said there are several ways.

"You can coach them better, and I think we are doing that," he said. "You can improve by experience and I think we are doing that. And, I think you can add new players and I think we are doing that. We are hitting all three things."

The coaching them better part intrigued me. I think that speaks to the arrival of Paul Rhoads in the secondary. I expect much better play at safety with Rhoads coaching this bunch. I saw much better play from Josh Liddell, Santos Ramirez, De'Andre Coley and Kevin Richardson.

And, don't be surprised if Richardson has an All-SEC season. He was the surprise of November last season. He's solid as a nickel, safety and can play corner in a pinch. I consider him a starter in the specialty packages.

As far as others that are playing much better than last year, Dre Greenlaw is now a terrific player. I think Brooks Ellis is much better in both the run and the pass situations. Those two are solid SEC linebackers and may be one of the better tandems in the league.

As far as the newcomers, I think there will be several that play this season. McTelvin "Sosa" Agim is going to be terrific at some point this season, maybe at the outset. He was more than I expected and everyone told me he was good. He's going to have fun in Smith's schemes. I think he'll be put in situations that make him tough to block.

Taiwan Johnson and Bijohn Jackson are going to be a load as a great nose tackle rotation. Johnson was playing out of position last season at the three technique, but he's back where he can wreak havoc at nose. Jackson may have a breakout season. They'll be great because they will stay fresh. Armon Watts may surprise there, too.

That gets me to the best player on the team, defensive end Deatrich Wise. He was a beast at the end of last year and was better in the spring. He's poised for a great senior season. I think he's going to be a first round draft pick. And, he's everything you need to cause problems for blocking schemes.

The fact that Wise has Jeremiah Ledbetter playing just to the inside makes things even tougher for the offensive lines. Because they'll play on the weakside, it's going to be tough to double team either one. And, Dre Greenlaw may be unblocked because of that combination. He should have some fun now that he knows how to read his keys. He didn't last year. He just chased the ball, sometimes late.

Yes, I feel better about these Hogs, maybe better than I did at this time last season. Oh, there needs to be some come throughs on offense at quarterback with Austin Allen and in the line. But I think everyone is going to be surprised at the way Colton Jackson plays at left tackle.

I listened to both coordinators rave about Jackson last month. Smith thinks the Hogs are going to be good on the left side of the offensive line with Jackson and guard Hjalte Froholdt. So does Dan Enos.

Bielema said there are concerns with the line, but he thinks it will work out. He's been in this exact spot many times as a head coach. He's always come through with solid offensive line play. Part of it is the way Bielema teams play. There is no finesse to anything his teams do. It's something that allows for offensive linemen to blossom. They'll be pushed to develop. And, they will.

The running back situation might be the surprise of the 2016 season. I think everyone on the UA staff is certain Devwah Whaley is the real deal. I hear the same things about Whaley that I heard three years ago when Alex Collins was coming to campus. If he's what they think, he's probably a sure thing to make 1,000 yards as a freshman.

OK, so I feel good. There may be some developments in the next month that make me feel better. Bielema has two scholarships in hand to take an experienced player, perhaps a senior transfer or two. Maybe they'll be one will be an offensive lineman. He said as much last week at the SEC meetings. Perhaps he was just trying to get the word out that he had a scholarship. But maybe he knows something and it just hasn't happened yet.

I listen to the national experts talk after visiting with Bielema. They are high on Arkansas. Is it just a repeat of last season when the Hogs couldn't meet expectations out of the gate? I don't think so.

Perhaps it all falls in place before the trip to Fort Worth the second week of the season. If the Hogs can come back from Texas with a win over what promises to be a decent TCU team, then they may be off to the races. They have four real deal games at home with Alabama, Florida, Ole Miss and LSU. Someone suggested last week that the Hogs will go 2-2 or maybe even 3-1 in those games.

OK, I'm officially excited. There is a lot of grass to be mowed between now and then. That's what I did all of Saturday, catch up with my mowing. It was a good time to think about expectations for football season. I can't help but be excited.

Hawgs Daily Top Stories