Darren McFadden and Felix Jones are arguably the best backfield in college football, and they'll certainly win more than one game for Arkansas this year, but this team has more question marks than the Riddler's costume and an offseason's worth of turmoil surrounding the program and a return trip to Atlanta isn't looking very likely. Losses to graduation and players turning pro early will affect both sides of the ball, and the loss of both OC Gus Malzahn and QB Mitch Mustain (and therefor the passing game) is going to be a bigger deal than the coaching staff is willing to admit.
On the line, tackles Tony Ugoh and Zac Tubbs, guard Stephen Parker, TE Wes Murphy and backup guard/center Jeremy Harrell have graduated leaving Center Jonathan Luigs and RG Robert Felton the only returning starters. Luigs was an All-SEC selection last year while Felton is a three year starter. Surrounding them is a mix of talented understudies that can become an effective unit given some time to gel. Senior RT Nate Garner has game experience and started one last year at RG, while LT Jose Valdez saw action in five games last season, including replacing an injured Ugoh in the second half of the Capital One Bowl. LG Mitch Petrus moved back to the line from FB, and there's decent competition along the line from young guys like Ray Dominguez, Kareem Crowell, and Mike Aguirre. This will be a good unit that will get Arkansas back to being a conference leader in rushing, but they are an inexperienced lot that will have to come together quickly.
|Who'd have thought the Arkansas O-line would be such fertile ground for a Herzog reference?|
Also key for this offense is the health of versatile FB/h-back/receiver Peyton Hillis. Hillis was a key blocker for the ground game, and is actually the second leading returning pass catcher with 19 catches for 159 yards last season. After a deep thigh bruise sidelined him for the last four games of last season, the Razorbacks went 1-3, so keeping him healthy and involved is hugely important for this team's chances.
And speaking of injury issues, the worst possible news for the Razorback passing game came in the form of a practice injury to leading receiver Marcus Monk, who will likely miss the first four to six weeks of the season. Monk caught fifty last year for 962 yards and 11 TDs, and is the biggest receiving threat the Hogs can put on the field. There are expectations for a receiving corp featuring converted QB Robert Johnson, Rod Coleman, London Crawford and TE Ben Cleveland. Of those, Crawford is the leading returner in yardage, grabbing 5 for 117 yards and 2 TDs, while Cleveland had the most grabs with 12 for 103 yards and 2 TDs. For the Hogs to be successful, these guys are going to have to be productive and give the Hogs a downfield threat to keep opposing defenses from stacking the line to contain McFadden and Jones.
Of course, those receivers won't have a lot of success if the QB position doesn't improve. Mustain was pulled halfway through the season in favor of Casey Dick, who completed 65 of 132 for 9 TDs and 6 INTs. He is 4-5 as a starter (though, to be fair, four of those five were to ranked teams), and doesn't have to be spectacular, just competent. Backing him up is Natahan Emert, a walk-on transfer from Missouri Southern. If Dick can stay healthy and play smart, they can expect decent production in the passing game, but this should be an area of worry for Arkansas fans.
On defense, the Hogs lose a lot of talent to both graduation and players going early to the NFL, including leading tackler Sam Olajubutu, CB Chris Houston, DE Jamaal Anderson, and DT Keith Jackson. There are only four returning starters, but there is experience and DC Reggie Herring is starting to work the magic he displayed in turning NC State into a defensive power in the ACC. Injuries in spring hampered Herring's plans, but only DT Marcus Harrison (torn ACL) seemed unlikely to be ready for fall camp and the regular season.
The line returns DE Antwain Robinson and DT Ernest Mitchell. Mitchell stepped up last season after replacing an injured Harrison and recorded 8 TFLs, a team high. Robinson is in the doghouse after a shoplifting arrest, and his expected backup is senior Chris Wade. New to the line is DE Malcolm Sheppard, Herring's defensive MVP of the spring, who replaces all SEC end Jamaal Anderson.
The linebacking corp is talented, featuring Weston Dacus, the leading returning tackler with 95 stops (3. sacks, 4.5 tfls, 1 pbu and 1 int), at MLB. Freddie Fairchild joins him on the strongside. Fairchild had 9 starts in '05 and two last year before an ACL injury ended his season. On the weakside Desmond Williams and Ryan Powers will battle for time. Williams was a DB recruit that moved up to LB, while Powers saw action in three game as a true freshman before redshirting.
The secondary returns FS Michael Grant, who tied the departed Houston for most INTs with three, and SS Matt Hewitt moves back to safety after filling in at LB last year. Jerrell Norton moved to CB from safety and will need to prove he can be a consistent cover corner, while Matterral Richardson returns after a solid season last year, breaking up 10 passes and recording 63 stops. This unit isn't as experienced as last year's, but there's potential there that could turn into a strength.
|09/29||vs North Texas|
|10/20||at Ole Miss|
|10/27||vs Florida International|
|11/03||vs South Carolina|
|11/17||vs Mississippi State|
Trading Southern Cal for Troy should keep the Hogs from an embarassing beating early in the season, though the ever stingy defense of the Alabama brand Trojans is not exactly what a team with a need for time to gel is looking forward to. Still, the Hogs should sweep their OOC slate (with North Texas, 1-AA Chattanooga, and Florida International all visiting), giving them four automatic wins. Even though they face Ole Miss in Oxford, the Rebels are likely easy pickings, while their rivals to the south won't be the pushover they are always assumed to be. State held McFadden to only 80ish yards in last year's contest and Arkansas was able to pull out a win thanks to costly special teams errors by the Bulldogs. Much to the amusement of many, I think State will have a much better team this year with a shot at a bowl, and an upset of Arkansas might be in the works. The Hogs also get Auburn and South Carolina at home, two teams looking for revenge from last year, but they must face Alabama (a game that's proven to be a pretty accurate barometer for each team's season), Tennessee, and LSU all on the road this year. While the Hogs will most certainly make it to a bowl this year, they probably won't sniff Atlanta or New Year's day this season.