State of the Hogs: Analyzing the deficiencies in Arkansas' 53-point loss

Auburn alum Bo Jackson watches as Auburn wide receiver Stanton Truitt (10) dives into the end zone for a touchdown on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016, against Arkansas during the first quarter at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala.

— Football is the ultimate team sport. Everything must work together in perfect fashion to form a successful offense or defense.

If there is one missing link, it will be exposed by a good team. As they say, there is no place to run and no place to hide. You will be attacked and it can be unmerciful.

There must be solid recruiting in every area. Size is important in football. Big is good, bigger is better. Of course, speed goes with it. Athleticism is just as important. Slow and big is just as bad as small.

In the SEC, speed is evident at the top programs. It's the difference in Alabama, Florida, Texas A&M and Georgia. Tennessee is close to returning to that level, mainly because of an infusion of speed and athletic ability.

If you line all of those teams up on the sideline to run races, they are going to be the ones winning most of them. I saw that in Auburn on Saturday in a 56-3 whipping of Bret Bielema's fourth Arkansas team. The Tigers looked fast and quick, Arkansas slow and less than athletic. Auburn won foot races all night.

The equalizer in all of that is offensive line play. Big and bad neutralizes speed and athletic ability, but only to a point.

Offensive line play is the most important area in college football, maybe in any level of football. Solid offensive line play can take control of a football game.

Oh, I know what you are saying: What about quarterback? Yes, quarterback is the one position that can fix all weaknesses, right all wrongs and give you a chance on any given day. That goes for high school, college or NFL.

But that's if the offensive line can hold its own. It's the position that has the most players. By rule, there are five offensive linemen. You can play two ends, as well. So you can play as many as seven in the front for blocking purposes, the way it was done for about 75 years in football. Only in the last 50 have ends widened, taking them out of the trenches in some situations.

But in the old days, you'd have seven blockers to protect your backs. There was no such thing as split ends.

Back to my point, many teams use the tight end in protection situations, opting to block with six, or adding a back in protection to give you as many as seven.

But the general rule is that if your linemen are not good enough, the defense – especially one with a good front four – will eventually neutralize good quarterback play.

Does any of this sound like what's happening at Arkansas right now? Did it look like what happened against Texas A&M, Alabama and Auburn in the three losses? Of course, it did.

Arkansas lost the heart of its football team last season: Sebastian Tretola and Mitch Smothers were top line SEC offensive lineman lost to graduation, and Denver Kirkland left early after his junior year in probably somewhat of a surprise. The Hogs also lost tight end Hunter Henry after his junior year, although no one was surprised because he was the first pick at his position in the draft.

The offensive line that is playing now has two returning starters, both playing different positions than last year. Frank Ragnow has moved from guard to center, a position he played two years ago in a rotation with Smothers. Dan Skipper moved from right tackle to left tackle, a position he played two years ago. Both Ragnow and Skipper are solid SEC offensive linemen.

The other three starters have proven to be less than adequate. There is belief that Hjalte Froholdt, the left guard, will be a good SEC linemen at some point. He has the physical tools, but he's learning something new every day. He's a converted defensive tackle with a limited football background after growing up in Denmark.

Brian Wallace has emerged over the last couple of weeks as the best hope at right tackle. A four-star recruit, Wallace is a third-year sophomore with lots of ability. But he's still learning all of the nuances of the position. Experience is the most important aspect of offensive line play. He just doesn't have much.

The third newcomer on the line is Texas transfer Jake Raulerson. Battling a bad ankle, Raulerson has had an up-and-down first eight games with the Hogs. He's a junior with some game experience, but had a tough time sticking as a starter at Texas after playing center, guard and tackle. His problem has always been a lack of size. He was a 294-pounder when he arrived at Arkansas and muscled up to 305 by the start of the season. He's probably down a few pounds now.

The only other players to log extensive time in the offensive line have been Zach Rogers, trained at center and guard, and Colton Jackson, trained at tackle and guard. Sophomore Jake Hall, a converted defensive end, has played some as an extra tackle (or tight end) in specialty situations. At 266 pounds, he's probably too light for extended play at tackle, although he is listed as Skipper's backup.

The other backups in the offensive line are redshirt freshman Jalen Merrick, an athletic 330-pounder, and walk-on Johnny Gibson, a 344-pound sophomore. Neither Merrick nor Gibson have shown as much consistency as those in the starting lineup.

There was hope that the last recruiting class could provide some help, but none are in the two deep. Junior college transfers Paul Ramirez (299) and Deion Malone (296), and true freshman Jake Heinrich (295) are all redshirting. Ramirez was injured early in camp. Heinrich sustained an injury last spring during wrestling that set him back. It's not clear when any of those three could be ready to play, but it won't be this season.

What it's clear to me is that Arkansas did not match up with the offensive line with Texas A&M, Alabama and Auburn. It was more even against TCU and Ole Miss, the two Power 5 victories in the 5-3 start.

Auburn was superb in the offensive line. I watched with my field glasses as senior left guard Alex Kozan (310) and junior right guard Braden Smith (300) mauled the Hogs inside. Junior Austin Golson (314), moved from left tackle to center, was good, too. Junior Darius James (320) was elevated to the starting spot at left tackle and was impressive, too. Senior right tackle Robert Leff (299) also started. The Tigers have started that group the last three games and it's a good one.

The strength of this Arkansas team was supposed to be the defensive line. It's not a bad group with Deatrich Wise, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Taiwan Johnson and Tevin Beanum. There is adequate depth there, too. But it was overmatched for much of the game by the Auburn offensive line.

Clearly, the Auburn defensive line of Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams, Marlon Davidson and Dontavius Russell is better, but it was going against a less-than-strong offensive line. By comparison, the Arkansas defensive line has seen better blockers in games.

This Arkansas defensive line looked similar in the spring when it mauled its teammates on the other side of the line. However, good offensive line play by Texas A&M, Alabama and Auburn neutralized their abilities.

The key to winning in the SEC is to build your offensive line. It's always been important. It's not going to change. It's the difference between the top of the SEC and the next level.

Of course, that does not explain the problems with the Arkansas run defense. How can a decent defensive line get mauled for a school record 543 yards? It seemed like any play called by Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee could work.

The jet sweep out of motion with the wide receiver – freshman Eli Stove with only one carry for no gain in SEC play – went for 78 yards on the first play. The linebackers were frozen inside watching for the next phase in the single wing sequence in the Auburn offense. Cornerback Jared Collins and safety Santos Ramirez were both covered by blockers. Neither made a move as Stove split them five yards from the line of scrimmage.

Bielema said it was a play that Auburn knew it could run successfully coming into the game. It was similar to a play Alabama used to gash the Hogs just two weeks ago. Stove would carry twice more, gaining 14 yards. Anything wide was tough on the Hogs. They were gashed inside, too, but the edge seemed to be the weak point.

Bielema brought up the edge issue just as he did after the Alabama game. It was in his opening remarks. It's fundamental football, he said. You don't set an edge, you don't have a defense.

So what's the issue? Surely the Hogs know that's where they are going to be attacked by now? It's speed.

“Without question,” he said. “It's not a player, it's an area.”

The area appears to be big, too. I don't see speed at cornerback or safety, and it's not showing up at linebacker, either. It's more glaring with the loss of weakside linebacker Dre Greenlaw, a converted safety. Greenlaw broke his foot early in the Alabama game. He may be able to return by either the Mississippi State or Missouri games, the two road games that end the regular season.

Safety play appears to be the most glaring weakness, but they are being asked to make too many tackles. Cornerbacks are not getting off blocks. Neither are linebackers.

It's not experience. The Hogs have five seniors and four juniors in the starting lineup. Ryan Pulley and Santos Ramirez are the only sophomores.

The Hogs counted on Kevin Richardson to help in the secondary. He could play safety, corner and nickel back and is a sure tackler. He was lost for the season after the opener with pectoral tendon surgery. He's got another year of eligibility left, so he'll help next year. They also lost speedy JUCO transfer Britto Tutt in camp with knee surgery. He's got three years of eligibility left.

Safeties on the redshirt list are freshman Deon Edwards and Micahh Smith. Linebackers on the redshirt list are freshman Dee Walker, Alexy Jean-Baptiste and Giovanni LaFrance, while freshman De'Jon Harris is getting some snaps as a backup at middle and weakside.

There is good talent in the freshman defensive line group. McTelvin Agim and Austin Capps have both played. Redshirts Briston Guidry and Jonathan Marshall are both highly regarded, too.

So is it scheme or talent? It may be that there is not enough speed at safety to play a conventional approach. I'm reminded of the way Arkansas tried to play its safeties against Texas A&M, well outside the hash on four or five plays with linebackers chasing motion backs in man-to-man coverage. Texas A&M quarterback Trevor Knight dashed up the middle on several of those looks.

Clearly, the thought by the coaches was to help the corners with safeties cheating wide in those situations. They were not deployed that wide against Alabama or Auburn, but they couldn't get to the outside from positions more in the middle of the field.

Most seemed willing to bash defensive coordinator Robb Smith for the issues. I would suggest that most of what he's doing is not working, but I don't have a suggestion for a change in scheme. It appears he's tried different ways to deploy the safeties. I also think that new secondary coach Paul Rhoads is highly competent. I think Bielema, a former defensive coordinator, is highly competent to adjust defenses, too.

What it looks to me is they need better players, especially in the secondary. Speed is the most obvious need, especially at corner and safety.

The Hogs have faced their toughest offensive challenges, aside from perhaps LSU's singular most daunting weapon, running back Leonard Fournette. The irony of this is that they have handled Fournette the last two years. That's what makes the issues with the running game that more surprising. There is probably not a better all-around back in the SEC than Fournette.

Until the Alabama and Auburn game, the issues that have caused the Hogs the most problems have been running quarterbacks. That was not thought to be Auburn's strong suit with Sean White at quarterback. But he did gash the Hogs with four carries for 61 yards with a long gain of 41 yards. He might have done more damage, if it had been needed.

What are the quarterback challenges the rest of the way? That may be the good news.

Florida has had injury problems with Luke Del Rio battling a knee issue. He has played some of late, but he's more of a passer than a runner. LSU, Mississippi State and Missouri have not gashed anyone with quarterback runs. But, Missouri did rush for 348 yards in a loss to Middle Tennessee last week, with Drew Lock making 63 on 10 QB runs.

The offenses left on the schedule do not present the overall threats the Hogs have seen. Missouri is the best left on the schedule at 505 yards per game.

It should be interesting to meet with Bielema and Smith on Wednesday for the lone chance with coaches during the open week. Bielema said after the game he wanted to assess if coaches were asking the defensive players to do too much. Will there be some scheme changes? It's not clear if there are any personnel changes that would make a difference.

To be honest, I don't see anything in the offensive line or the secondary that can be done a lot differently with the players available.

More than anything, it's a good time to regroup, get fresh and recharge the batteries for the November stretch run. The Hogs can compete with the teams left on the schedule, although Florida's defensive line looks a lot like what the Hogs saw against Texas A&M, Alabama and Auburn. The Gators are extremely talented up front on defense.

After a 56-3 drubbing, it would seem unlikely that many will jump on the Arkansas bandwagon for the November run. It should be considered that Bielema does do well after open dates and also after losses. He's 8-0 after SEC losses going back to the Georgia loss in Little Rock two years ago. Don't discount his chances for a strong finish.

At 5-3, Arkansas is still likely to be in a bowl. I'd say 7-5 is likely, but 8-4 is still very possible. TCU is not great, but that's still a very good victory. The Ole Miss win is a good one, too. The Rebels are like the Hogs - decent but in an extremely tough division. Both are stronger at quarterback and wide receiver than in the lines, but neither are bad teams.

Everything is magnified in the SEC West. Weaknesses are exposed. Most are capable of making you look poor if anything is out of kilter. Playing eight straight games without an open date can get you out of kilter and reduce all of your strengths, and there is no way to cover problems. Effort slides when there is fatigue.

The Hogs will bounce back and it might be in remarkable fashion. But it might be easier if they were a lot better in the offensive line or had more speed in the back end of the defense.