Jason Ivester

State of the Hogs: Ranking Positions for the Arkansas Football Team

Wide receiver is the strongest position on the Arkansas football team, followed closely by defensive line. That's the easy part. HI.com publisher Clay Henry went through the other positions for a summer time column with quite a few topics.

It's officially summer time. Five days of no rain lifted my spirits and also made me think about hitting the river for some fly fishing. That's next week when a week of vacation arrives.

But first there is an assignment as prep for Bo Mattingly's radio show. It's good enough to put in writing.

The text arrived from producer Bart Pohlman with four separate challenges. Rate the Arkansas football team by position groups, strongest to weakest. Does Bret Bielema's program feature sustainability? Who has job security in the SEC West? Is year four make or break (and I assume Bielema was the focus)?

In my mind, all are good topics and could be expanded into a column. But I decided I'd lump them all into one piece. It's a chance to write for a spell, too. Well, I like to write, so I said why not. It is sort of like deciding to fish an entire river, instead of just one shoal. I will tackle that assignment next week, jumping into a kayak.

Ranking the positions is a little tough because Bo doesn't like it when I list ties. But if you don't list ties, someone can surmise that a position listed at eight is a lot weaker than one in the top half. So I have some asterisks in my ranking. Consider:

1. Wide Receivers -- Easily the best position group on campus and it's gone from last to first in a short time. Credit Michael Smith for getting them right and for play caller Dan Enos for calling their numbers in brilliant fashion. I'll even give you the order of the way I'd rank them: Drew Morgan, Jared Cornelius, Dominique Reed, Keon Hatcher, Cody Hollister, Deon Stewart and La'Michael Pettway. Those top five are special players. Some may argue that Reed has potential to top the list and that's true. But Morgan and Cornelius are the more reliable and I'd add that Hatcher and Hollister could emerge much higher in the group when it's all over. Don't be surprised if Jordan Jones or T.J. Hammonds, brilliant freshmen, get some snaps. They have special ability.

2. Defensive Line -- The depth and ability are both top notch. End Deatrich Wise might be the best player on the team and among the SEC's top playmakers. Jeremiah Ledbetter is a perfect sidekick at tackle. McTelvin "Sosa" Agim was as advertised last spring as a first semester player. All three will play in the NFL. There are other solid defensive line players with experience, including Tevin Beanum, JaMichael Winston, Taiwan Johnson and Bijohn Jackson. There are others like Karl Roesler, Armon Watts and T.J. Smith in a solid rotation. I'm also excited about the prospects of freshmen Austin Capps, Jonathan Marshall and Briston Guidry. All three are 290 and on campus. Any team with a defensive line as a strength has a chance to surprise.

3. Linebacker -- It's been a long time since Arkansas featured this much depth (and talent) at linebacker. Brooks Ellis and Dre Greenlaw are going to be among the SEC's best tandem at inside linebacker. They made almost zero mistakes in the spring. Plus, Khalia Hackett and Randy Ramsey came on like gangbusters at the strongside linebacker spot. Ramsey was among the biggest surprises in the spring. But Hackett held him off, a plus. Both will play. Dwayne Eugene also had a solid spring behind Greenlaw. Kendrick Jackson was solid behind Ellis in the middle. All of those backups will be looking over their shoulder in August when four freshmen make this among the best position groups on the team. Like receiver, this is a position that has gone from suspect to outstanding in a short time. Defensive coordinator Robb Smtih smiles a lot when he talks about this group.

4. Quarterback -- Experience is the missing link here, but Austin Allen is a talented SEC quarterback and there is ability and numbers behind him. It's a solid position. Dan Enos has done a great job of bringing along the fourth-year junior. Rafe Peavey is better than expected, too. He made more strides than I expected from last August until spring. I hadn't seen him in scrimmages in between. He's getting close to being ready to play. There was clear separation from these two to Ty Storey and Ricky Town. That's why I throw in the talented freshman Cole Kelley, now on campus, too. Kelley's arm might be the best of the bunch. If he can figure things out in August, he might fight his way into the middle of the depth chart.

5. Secondary -- This is the unit that improved the most in the spring. There is still room for more growth as new coach Paul Rhoads continues to work his magic. Oh, it's not really magic. It's just teaching the fundamentals. When that happens, there is a soundness that appears magical on the field. Confidence grows and coverages become tighter. The safeties (Santos Ramirez, Josh Liddell and De'Andre Coley) were like a different group as Rhoads gave them the skills to take the proper angles in tackling. Look for Deon Edwards to push for playing time as a true freshman at safety. Cornerback looks much deeper with Jared Collins, Henre' Toliver, D.J. Dean, Willie Sykes and Ryan Pulley taking big steps forward under Rhoads with more aggressive play. This is one that I'd put an asterisk beside because I think there is potential for this group to rank higher on the list.

6. Running Backs -- It's certainly not a weakness, but it's not the best position on the field like it was last summer when Jonathan Williams, Alex Collins, Kody Walker and Rawleigh Williams were considered top shelf SEC talents in a stacked position group. Williams and Collins are gone to the NFL and there is a lot of hope that incoming freshmen Devwah Whaley and T.J. Hammonds can make a splash like Collins did three years ago. Walker and Williams are both coming off injuries, although both should be fine in the fall. How Williams handles contact after sustaining a herniated disc in the neck last fall is the key question. Duwop Mitchell looked like a solid running back in the spring and provides depth and some flash. Freshman Hayden Johnson could solve the void at fullback.

7. Tight Ends -- This is a position group that could make a jump into a much higher spot with some come throughs by a talented young group. Jeremy Sprinkle might be the top pro prospect on the team so it's not a problem area. But Enos likes to use multiple tight ends. Who will emerge as Sprinkle's running mate, the way he did last year as second fiddle to Hunter Henry? Jack Kraus missed the spring with ACL surgery and is healthy now. He might surprise with his overall ability and knowledge of the position. He's likely to play more than most suspect. Anthony Antwine is solid, too. Freshmen Will Gragg, Austin Cantrell and C.J. O'Grady are highly regarded, but none made a move in the spring. Will they impress in August? If they do, this might be a position that jumps into the top five. Put an asterisk here, too.

8. Kicking Game -- There is experience returning with punter Toby Baker and placekicker Cole Hedlund. This was one of the weakest position groups on the team last year. It looked better in the spring, but kickers don't turn heads until they do it in a game. Jared Cornelius could be a standout punt returner, but it's not clear who will handle kickoff returns. Someone needs to emerge as a strong kickoff man and it could be a freshman. Adam McFain is finally healthy and that could be his niche. He has the best leg of the returning kickers. Protections haunted this group last year. Much work was spent in this area in the spring, but it's one of the reasons I put the entire group so low. I need to see this group produce in games.

9. Offensive Line -- There are only two starters returning. The unit did not inspire in the spring under new coach Kurt Anderson, but there is much potential there. I will be surprised if this group doesn't climb in the ranking by the first game. Frank Ragnow moved from guard to center with solid results. He may be a spectacular player before season's end and Bielema touts him as possible early pick for the NFL draft. Dan Skipper played right tackle last year and again in the spring, but he might move to right guard in August. That would allow Brian Wallace, highly regarded, to play the spot he's worked at the last two seasons as a backup, right tackle. Hjalte Froholdt won the left guard spot and drew praise from both Enos and Smith, the coordinators. But he's still learning the fine points of offensive line play. Left tackle might be the biggest issue, Colton Jackson is among the most talented linemen on the team, but has not played. He might get a challenge from juco transfer Paul Ramirez. There is also suspicion that Bielema might find a senior transfer to solidify the left side of the line. Bielema does not sound concerned when he talks about the prospects of the line, but admits there is still work to do. This is the group that might be toughest to rank. The asterisk here is that Bielema always finds a way to produce solid offensive line play. There is a suspicion that he'll do it again. Put an asterisk here.

OK, on to the other challenges from Pohlman. I do think Bielema has done wonders in building the roster, the culture and also shown a knack for hiring solid coaches. All of that gives me the belief that his program has staying power. It's going forward, not backwards. Academics is at an all-time high. The culture of the program has produced very few off-the-field issues. He's proven to players that Bielema's way is the right way. They look at their leader and get in line. There are no shortcuts to what Bielema has done at Arkansas. Yes, he can sustain what he's done. Players love Bielema and that's a plus.

Bielema's job security is solid. He's won more every year. The 5-3 SEC record last year is the highlight of his three seasons. I suspect it will be tough to make a big jump this year from what the Hogs did last year just because the schedule is so tough, but I wouldn't be surprised to see it happen. Nick Saban and Dan Mullen have the most job security in the SEC West. Then, I'd list Bielema. Les Miles, Gus Malzahn, Hugh Freeze and Kevin Sumlin are somewhere behind those three. Miles returns a good team, but he will probably mess it up, again.

Freeze is the wild card here because I'm not sure what's going to happen with the NCAA investigation. He's taken some hits in the last month. What will the latest problems with Laremy Tunsil do to the Ole Miss program? Will they get some probation and possible bowl bans? Will players leave? Things can tumble in the blink of an eye at some place like Ole Miss.

I don't know that Bielema is in a make or break situation. The program appears to be solid and it's clear that Jeff Long, his boss, understands that as well as anyone. Fans seem to have embraced their head coach. The only concern is that the schedule is so tough that critical injuries can cripple almost any team in the SEC. I'd think the coaches facing make or break seasons are Miles, Malzahn and Sumlin, not Bielema.

Bielema seems to do best in November and that always serves a coach well. As Frank Broyles said, they do remember what you do in November. But I will also add that Danny Ford got it right when he said the SEC can put a coach on the hot seat quickly. He said all it takes is two straight losses. Ask Miles. He found himself with a more than warm seat after three straight losses and that's a coach with a national title.

But for now, things are solid in the Ozarks for Bret Bielema, so much that there are plans to expand the stadium. Tickets are selling fast for the best home schedule in the history of the program. But I will conclude with a line from Nolan Richardson, that always is true. You have to feed the monster. You have to win. There is nothing more important than Arkansas football in all 75 counties of the state. And there is nothing more important than winning.


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