Commentary:

5 keys to a successful Arkansas football season

By: Nate Olson
Published: Friday, July 7, 2017
Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen throws a pass during the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016, in Charlotte, N.C.
Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen throws a pass during the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech on Thursday, Dec. 29, 2016, in Charlotte, N.C.

Most agree that Arkansas will earn a bowl berth for the fourth straight season under Bret Bielema, but fans vary in how many wins they expect from the Razorbacks in 2017.

Many agree that a 6-6 or 7-5 record and a lower-tier bowl will make Bielema’s seat hot for the following year, but an eight-figure buyout keeps this fall from being make-or-break territory.

After reading some of the preview magazines, 6-6 seems like a blanket prediction and 7-5 a distinct possibility, but 8-4 is not a popular prediction. Eight seems to be the magic number that will leave fans with a good feeling and a decent bowl usually comes with that win total.

Think about how much more excitement there would be if the Hogs had hung on to large halftime leads against Missouri and Virginia Tech, and finished the season 9-4 instead of 7-6 in 2016.

Two wins make a considerable difference in perception and job security. As SEC Media Days loom next week, Bielema will be peppered with questions about those two games that got away at the end of last year and his outlook for the Razorbacks.

Here are five keys for the Hogs that will be important in winning eight or more games:


Austin Allen must pick up the slack: The fifth-year senior quarterback was brilliant in his debut as a starter last season, picking up the reigns of the offense from older brother, Brandon. However, Austin Allen did have a receiving corps loaded with experience, including departed seniors Keon Hatcher, Drew Morgan, Cody Hollister and Dominique Reed. He also had tight end Jeremy Sprinkle to lean on. While the Hogs look to reload at receiver they will turn to Allen to tutor the receivers and try to make them better. Jared Cornelius returns, which helps, but Allen will need to make some plays on his own and make his receivers look good. Also, he won’t be able to hand the ball to All-SEC back Rawleigh Williams, who left the team after another neck injury in the spring. Allen is the constant from this offense and if the Hogs are going to contend in the SEC West, he will have to be one of the elite quarterbacks in the nation.

Finish games: Arkansas was two halves from finishing with nine wins last year. The Hogs didn’t look good with the lead at times, of course, with Missouri and Virginia Tech being the worst cases. It seemed like Arkansas got complacent, even lackadaisical with effort and play-calling when it had the lead. To exceed expectations, the Razorbacks will need to hold on to leads and secure victories. Winning in the SEC is difficult even against the worst teams. You have to play all four quarters.

Devwah Whaley needs to become a featured back: I thought Whaley might have a better season than Williams last year after Williams missed part of the 2015 season with his first neck injury. I was wrong. Williams ran all over the SEC while Whaley nursed some growing pains in a backup role. Whaley did show flashes of brilliance, including a 75-yard touchdown run against Alcorn State, but he will have to grow up a lot this year with Williams gone. With an inexperienced receiving corps, it seems like a foregone conclusion that Whaley will have to run for more than 1,000 yards for Arkansas to move to the upper echelon of the SEC West. The good news is that he is capable and his combination of speed and power makes him a home-run threat. He also should be able to shoulder the burden of lots of carries. Ball control is the key to winning most games.

Defense must drastically improve: Defense was definitely the Hogs’ Achilles heel last year; really, the past two years. With the exception of the Florida win last November, Arkansas had to win shootouts to pick up victories in the SEC. Arkansas finished 76th in the nation in total defense and 85th in scoring defense. With an offense that may struggle early, the defensive unit must be much improved. Bielema elevated secondary coach Paul Rhoads to defensive coordinator and Rhoads promptly switched to a 3-4 scheme designed to put more of an emphasis on linebackers. Like I mentioned a few weeks ago, no matter the scheme a unit must have talent, and it has dropped off the past couple of years. Can Rhoads make a difference? Fans better hope so because it will be tougher to outscore teams this year without some takeaways and some three-and-outs.

A spark on special teams: Arkansas lost kicker Adam McFain, who hit 8 of 10 field goals last year with a long of 54. His backup, Cole Hedlund, must replace that production. Hedlund was 5 for 7 last year, but his long was 38. Hedlund must expand his range and be ready to make pressure-packed kicks; both struggles for him to this point. Aside from the kicking game, Arkansas needs to do better with returns. Deon Stewart had the longest kick return last year of 43 yards. Drew Morgan’s 33-yard punt return against Alcorn State was tops (Cornelius had a 65-yard return for a touchdown called back that game because of a penalty). Arkansas’ special teams unit failed to score a touchdown last year. The top SEC teams are able to score or set up scores with special teams play.

Nate Olson is a contributor to WholeHogSports.com

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