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.
UA position analysis
Arkansas running back Alex Collins runs drills during practice Saturday, April 5, 2014, at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville.
Brandon Allen, an 11-game starter in 2013, wasn’t really challenged in camp and will head into the Auburn game with the reins again. Allen has to play much better to give the Razorbacks a chance to contend. Allen had a 13-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio and completed 128 of 158 passes (49.6 percent) for 1,552 yards. Allen landed badly on his throwing shoulder on a touchdown dive against Southern Miss, separating his AC joint, and missed a loss at Rutgers the next week. He needed pain injections and missing practice time each week the rest of the season. Allen is fully healthy, confident and more in command heading into his junior year. He studied footwork and balance with 1990 Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke in Florida this summer and is ready to take huge strides. Redshirt freshman Austin Allen had a big opening scrimmage, completing 16 of 20 passes for 190 yards, and had secured the No. 2 job by the midway point of camp, ahead of true freshman Rafe Peavey, who should profit from his early enrollment. The only other quarterback who threw a pass last season was AJ Derby (19 of 36, 178 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT), who is now playing tight end.
If Arkansas can keep junior Jonathan Williams (150 carries, 900 yards, 4 TDs in 2013) and sophomores Alex Collins (190-1,026, 4) and sophomore Korliss Marshall (17-146) healthy all season, they could be one of the top tailback groups in the country. Williams, who started all 12 games last year, is in line to do the same this fall. Collins said he’ll be more durable after gaining about 15 pounds to 218, and he had a powerful showing in the mid-camp scrimmage. Marshall has a better grasp of the entire offensive package after spending much of last year at safety, so the speedster should take more carries. Redshirt freshman Denzel Evans, true freshman Juan Day, who is coming off knee surgery, and combo back Kody Walker are on hand if injuries strike. Walker topped the fullback depth chart, which also featured Patrick Arinze and true freshman Tyler Colquitt, but the coaches are hoping to develop a better thumper in the spot. Walk-on Chris Jones joined the 105-man roster after the first week of camp.
This position will be under great scrutiny as the Razorbacks desperately seek game-breaking talent and speed to stretch defenses. Junior Keon Hatcher (27 catches, 346 yards, 2 TDs) is a primary leader, along with senior Demetrius Wilson, who underwent knee surgery last year during camp. Hatcher’s ball security must improve. Sophomore Drew Morgan had a roaring start to camp with 117 yards and 2 touchdowns on 6 catches in the first scrimmage, and the prolific receiver from Greenwood said he’s ready to break onto the radar. Transfer Cody Hollister knows all the positions and gives the unit a strong blocker and good hands. Sophomore Eric Hawkins, the fastest receiving, had a quiet start to camp. In the slot, freshmen Jared Cornelius and Jojo Robinson are battling to contribute, with Cornelius’ presence in spring as an early enrollee giving him a leg up. Robinson roused the crowd with a 23-yard catch and juke touchdown in a scrimmage. Freshman Kendrick Edward’s 6-6 height and smooth running ability give him a shot at early playing time.
Hunter Henry fought through a swollen knee problem for almost all of 2013 and still managed 28 catches for 409 yards and 4 TDs while earning freshman All-America honors. He’s a more physical blocker this season and should show improved speed to run seams. AJ Derby’s move to the spot has greatly enhanced the competition with sophomore Jeremy Sprinkle (4-68) and junior Alex Voelzke. Derby made a series of outstanding catches throughout the spring and into camp, although a knee bruise slowed him. True freshman Jack Kraus and walk-on Will Duncan are the depth providers at a spot that will continue to gain attention in the offense.
Numbers will not be a problem here, with many high-profile youngsters populating the trenches behind a handful of veterans. Senior Brey Cook has assumed a major leadership role and returns at right tackle, while 6-10 sophomore Dan Skipper slides out a spot to left tackle. Those two and right guard Denver Kirkland are returning starters. Veterans Luke Charpentier and Mitch Smothers held the lead at left guard and center midway through camp, but newcomers Cameron Jefferson, Sebastian Tretola, Brian Wallace and Frank Ragnow were pushing hard for jobs. Ragnow and Wallace are strong candidates for playing time as rookies. Depth is an asset, with veterans like Austin Beck, Marcus Danenhauer, Jonathan McClure and Chris Stringer around.
The return of end Trey Flowers (44 tackles, 5 sacks) for his senior year was critical to the fortunes of the front, and Bret Bielema flew to Huntsville, Ala., to help secure Flowers’ return. Sophomore Deatrich Wise Jr. (17, 2 sacks), who showed flashes last season, suffered a mid-camp knee injury and might have to be eased into the season. JaMichael Winston (4) had a healthier camp than Brandon Lewis (13, 2 1/2 tackles for loss), who was battling a swollen knee, and could start the opener. Redshirt freshman Tevin Beanum, who has reshaped his body in one year, had an impressive second scrimmage behind Flowers. If sophomore Darius Philon (46, 3 sacks) can find consistency at tackle, he could rise quickly into SEC stardom with his combination of power and speed. Junior DeMarcus Hodge (27, 1) shifted to tackle in camp behind Philon, but he could still win time at nose guard, where undersized sophomore Taiwan Johnson (4) made a move. True freshman Bijhon Jackson’s natural explosiveness gives him a good shot to break into the rotation. Ke’Tyrus Marks, Cordale Boyd and Armon Watts are reserve options at tackle, while Anthony Brown, Karl Roesler and converted tight end Mitchell Loewen back up at end.
The Razorbacks have the beginning signs of some depth in this corps for the first time in years, with seniors Braylon Mitchell (77, 2 tackles for loss) and Martrell Spaight (22, 1 sack) leading for jobs on the outside and sophomore Brooks Ellis (33, 2 TFL) manning the middle. The departure of junior Otha Peters, who was hurt much of his Arkansas career, impacted the depth and forced sophomore transfer Josh Williams onto the two-deep. A high school injury resurfaced for Ellis in camp, although it is not expected to be serious. Seniors Daunte Carr (4) and TQ Coleman (2) rep behind Mitchell on the weak side, while true freshman Randy Ramsey made a big splash in the opening scrimmage and is behind Spaight on the strong side. Freshmen Dwayne Eugene and Khalia Hackett bring a dose of speed, along with Ramsey, to a unit that sorely needed it. This group should make significant advancements in 2014.
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Arkansas’ shift to a more press-coverage type of team will be tested immediately at Auburn, which can put great pressure on corners with its ability to hammer the edges with the run and pass. The veteran cornerbacks took their licks last fall, but players like seniors Tevin Mitchel (47, 1 interception), who is coming off spring shoulder surgery and a tricky hamstring in camp, and Carroll Washington (18, 2 passes broken up), junior Will Hines (22, 1 INT) and sophomores Jared Collins (27, 1 INT) and D.J. Dean (9, 4 PBU) are determined to play more physically and provide tighter coverage. Freshman Henre Toliver made a move early in camp and might earn playing time. Fellow rookies Cornelius Floyd and Santos Ramirez could profit from redshirt seasons. The safety spots are still slim, although senior Alan Turner (97, 2 INT) and junior Rohan Gaines (33, 1 TFL) are solid on the front line. The depth will come primarily from junior Davyon McKinney (5), redshirt freshman De’Andre Coley and true freshman Josh Liddell.
Korliss Marshall could be the type of game-changer Arkansas has sought since Joe Adams’ departure, although fewer kickoffs than ever are being returned. D.J. Dean appears to have the lead at punt returner. Keon Hatcher and freshmen Jared Cornelius and Jojo Robinson could figure in with some returning duties. Sam Irwin-Hill had a impressive debut to major college football, ranking 13th in the nation in punting average (44.3) and figuring prominently in several fourth-down gambles, some successful and some not. The Irwin-Hill, who can punt with either foot, executed a few profitable rugby kicks last season and should build on that success as a senior. He’s also a good candidate to handle kickoffs. Fifth-year senior John Henson seemed to have a slight edge over true freshman Cole Hedlund midway through camp. A drop-off from Zach Hocker’s 13-of-15 performance on field goals last year seems inevitable. Veteran deep snapper Alan D’Appollonio has been virtually flawless through three seasons as a starter. He and top holder Matt Emrich will have done their jobs well if their names don’t show up in game reports this fall.