Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll.
Arkansas quarterback Brandon Allen walks off the field after the Razorbacks failed to convert on third down during the second quarter of play Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
A look at the top 10 questions surrounding the Arkansas Razorbacks football team heading into the 2014 season:
Will Brandon Allen be a much-improved quarterback?
Short answer, yes. Allen has displayed greater arm strength, more knowledge of the offense and stronger leadership throughout summer sessions and in camp. His work with Chris Weinke in Florida and with Arkansas coaches should have him throwing more on balance, although he still must reduce the bad decisions that resulted in interceptions at critical times last year. He’s healthy and much more confident. If he completes less than 55 percent of his passes it’ll be surprising, and his 13-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio should be much better.
Will cornerback play be better?
It has to be, right, because it could hardly get any worse than the calamity of 2013. Seniors Tevin Mitchel and Carroll Washington have taken it on their shoulders to push this unit to a better place, invigorated by a commitment to more bump-and-run coverage. Junior Will Hines is trying to fight his way back up the chart, as sophomores Jared Collins and D.J. Dean and freshman Henre Toliver have made moves. Many of the deep-ball receptions in camp came with a cornerback glued to a receiver, so better instincts and in-flight adjustments would help. The group will have to be physical tacklers, too, with so many Spread offenses in action around the SEC, and they lacked in that department a year ago. The Razorbacks are acquiring taller, more physical corners, as evidenced by 6-1 newcomers Cornelius Floyd, Santos Ramirez and Toliver.
Are the receivers positioned to make a big move?
This remains to be seen. The wideouts have a lot to prove after a bad year in the transition to the new offense. Junior Keon Hatcher made impressive catches in camp scrimmages and is serious about improving his play, shoring up ball security problems, and leading the group. Senior Demetrius Wilson’s veteran presence should help, and feisty Drew Morgan erupted early in camp. Cody Hollister should help with good hands and a physical approach. The slot position is intriguing, with plenty of opportunity awaiting freshmen Jared Cornelius and Jojo Robinson. The Hogs need two or three more like 6-6 Kendrick Edwards in the coming years.
How much improvement can the linebackers make?
There should be notably improved play here. Braylon Mitchell and Martrell Spaight are much more prepared to play fast and physical as seniors, and Brooks Ellis should take a big leap at middle linebacker in his second year if he kneecap trouble subsides. The loss of rugged Otha Peters hurts the unit’s depth, at least there are promising reserves to pick up the slack. Daunte Carr and TQ Coleman should contribute more in their final year, Josh Williams made for a great late pick-up as a transfer, and rookies Randy Ramsey, Khalia Hackett and Dwayne Eugene appear headed for good careers with speed and skills.
Will Bret Bielema be as aggressive with gimmick plays?
Bielema’s willingness to try trick plays and throw surprises at opponents was a welcome change after John L. Smith’s dry, by-the-book losing season of 2012. Not all of Bielema’s gambles paid off and some of them were called at inopportune moments — the halfback pass vs. Ole Miss, the fake punt vs. Mississippi State — but his approach showed he wasn’t scared to risk the consequences. At Rutgers, his fake-punt pass that led to a field goal and halfback pass for a touchdown should have been enough to snatch away a road victory. There will come a time when trickery isn’t needed as much, but there is likely still a place for it in 2014.
Will the offensive line be a huge asset?
Despite losing veteran leaders Travis Swanson and David Hurd off a unit that gave up an SEC-low eight sacks, the Razorbacks have a chance to be formidable up front. Part of the reason for it is the competition fostered by bringing in heralded newcomers like Cameron Jefferson, Sebastian Tretola, Brian Wallace and Frank Ragnow to compete for starting positions. Also, position coach Sam Pittman has a way of connecting with his players that leads to positive results. Senior Brey Cook has surged into a leadership position and is determined to make 2014 the start of Arkansas’ rebound into contention. Bret Bielema builds his teams from the inside out, and this position indicates he’s heading in a positive direction.
Who will lead the Razorbacks in rushing?
The Hog who stays healthiest all season has the best shot here. If Jonathan Williams recovers smoothly from the hamstring issue he suffered early in camp, he’ll probably earn “starter” status again as the best all-around option. Analysts will watch closely to see if Alex Collins is as productive with about 15 extra pounds after his 1,026-yard season. Collins ran tough, powering through arm tackles, in a mid-camp scrimmage. Speedy Korliss Marshall has to get his touches as the best breakaway threat of the bunch. All three should catch a good number of passes.
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Will Arkansas’ turnover margin be better?
Another area where Arkansas could hardly get any worse. The Razorbacks ranked No. 111 out of 123 teams last season at minus-0.75 per game, and No. 118 in 2012 at minus-1.58 per game. Those are clear indicators of bad teams. Between their renewed emphasis on securing the ball and a more scrappy, ball-targeting mentality on defense, the Razorbacks should start trending back to at least the middle of the pack in turnover margin.
Which of the newcomers could have the biggest impact?
From a yard-producing standpoint, the answer is probably slot receivers Jared Cornelius and Jojo Robinson or transfer receiver Cody Hollister. Bret Bielema thinks linemen Brian Wallace and Frank Ragnow are going to play, as should transfers Cameron Jefferson and Sebastian Tretola. On defense, it appears linebackers Josh Williams and Randy Ramsey will get shots at playing time, as will safety Josh Liddell, who as an under-recruited in-state player could be this year’s Korliss Marshall as a potential SEC star. Kicker Cole Hedlund is engaged in a battle with senior John Henson, although it looked like Henson had a leg up midway through camp.
Can the Razorbacks contend in the SEC West?
Highly unlikely this fall, based on a few thin units, so much inexperience at receiver and another brutal schedule. The analysts will tell you that every other team in the division has more talent this season, and the heavyweights — Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M — have stacked prime recruiting classes on top of each other for several years running. Arkansas will have to stay healthy, perform much better on both sides of the ball and flip the tables on its recent turnover-margin trends to have a shot at reaching the postseason out of what has proven to be the nation’s top division the past few years.