FAYETTEVILLE The 10 most pressing questions facing the 2012 Arkansas Razorbacks, in order of increasing importance:
No. 10 Can Knile Davis exceed his 1,322-yard rushing total from 2010?
The odds say no, but Davis is hungry to prove otherwise. Davis attacked his runs and cuts early in camp and resembled the back adept at blending premier speed, vision and power. After a year layoff recovering from a broken left ankle, the junior had a couple of ball security issues in camp that must be tightened up. Keeping Davis healthy is a key to the season. Doing so might mean fewer games where he handles 25 carries such as he did against Mississippi State, LSU and Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. If he plays in 12 regular-season games, Davis should eclipse the 1,000-yard mark and could challenge for the SEC rushing title.
No. 9 Where will the sacks come from with Tenarius Wright moved to linebacker?
The Hogs said good-bye to players who accounted for 47 career sacks, namely former defensive end Jake Bequette and linebacker Jerry Franklin. The top returning pass rushers are senior linebacker Alonzo Highsmith (41/2 sacks ) and junior defensive end Chris Smith (31/2 sacks). Smith received starting reps at Alabama and in Dallas against Texas A&M after Bequette suffered an ankle injury against Troy. Smith picked up a sack and totaled 11 tackles, hinting that he could prove the best answer. Trey Flowers, a 6-3, 243-pound sophomore who earned All-SEC freshman honors, started three games at Ole Miss and Vanderbilt and at home against South Carolina and finished with 28 tackles, 1 sack and 1 quarterback hurry. Defensive tackles Byran Jones, D.D. Jones and Robert Thomas produced a combined three sacks in 2011, and they need to generate more pressure at the middle line. Add a smattering of sacks from the linebackers and defensive backs to what looks like a more energetic approach on defense. If all goes right, the Hogs could meet or exceed their 29 sacks from 2011, which ranked fifth in the SEC.
No. 8 Will Arkansas’ defensive front be the best in the SEC?
Probably not. LSU and Alabama project to have dominating front lines, but this could be one of Arkansas’ best. The Razorbacks have a deep and experienced corps of tackles with Byran Jones, D.D. Jones, Robert Thomas, Alfred Davis, Jared Green, Lavunce Askew and maybe Darius Philon. The unit must tie up blockers and stop the run better than last season. The loss of Jake Bequette and Tank Wright (to linebacker) impacts the ends, but the Razorbacks think they’ll get quality play from Chris Smith, Trey Flowers, Colton Miles-Nash, Austin Flynn and possibly one or two newcomers.
No. 7 Can Tyler Wilson improve his numbers at quarterback?
Yes, but it won’t be easy. We projected a 3,500-yard season for Wilson last year and he delivered with 3,638 passing yards, the second-best season by an Arkansas quarterback, 14 yards more than Ryan Mallett threw for in his first season as a starter. Another offseason portends a firmer grasp on the offense, which should help Wilson make better presnap reads and quick decisions. If that holds true, Wilson could boost his 63.2 percent completion rate, which tied for 38th nationally. On the flip side, he’s dealing with a mostly new set of receivers and does not have the security of a Jarius Wright, who led Arkansas with 66 catches for 1,117 yards and 12 touchdowns, to rely on. It could keep him from threatening Mallett’s school-record 3,869-yard season of 2010. Wilson’s 24 touchdown passes a year ago was actually a low number for a quarterback with 438 attempts. The 24 quarterbacks who attempted as many or more passes than Wilson averaged around 30 touchdown passes. What lifted Wilson was sound decision-making, a trait marked by throwing only six interceptions. Most passers with his number of attempts averaged roughly 12 last season.
No. 6 Could depth issues at linebacker and safety derail the defense?
This is a possibility. Early camp injuries to inside linebackers Alonzo Highsmith and Tenarius Wright pointed out the lack of experience available in the reserves, but it also gave players like Terrell Williams, Otha Peters and Braylon Mitchell significant reps.Eric Bennett, the unit’s most experienced safety, also missed camp time, forcing Rohan Gaines, Alan Turner and Jerry Mitchell to take more snaps with Ross Rasner, and the results weren’t always pretty. The rise of Jarrett Lake at outside linebacker and the star position could free up Rasner to take more safety snaps, which should be a boost to the secondary. Arkansas has shown signs of being a better tackling defense, and that could be a key to maximizing its performance.
No. 5 Can the Razorbacks find an offensive balance?
The most dominating stretch during Bobby Petrino’s time came in the second half of 2010, when tailback Knile Davis shredded defenses inside and out and gave Ryan Mallett and the deep receiving corps more space and opportunity to attack. A healthy Davis could set the Hogs on a course for achieving that type of balance early this fall. If the offensive line can settle on its rotation and find its groove quickly, there is no reason to think the Razorbacks won’t be dangerous on the ground and through the air again.
No. 4 Can the offensive front protect Tyler Wilson against the elite SEC defenses?
That Wilson was able to stay in the game — and walk afterward — after the pounding he took at Alabama last year was a small miracle. Outings against the Crimson Tide and LSU, aside, the line did an able job allowing 28 sacks to finish tied for sixth in the SEC. But it remains critical to keep Wilson upright. Alabama sacked Wilson once, but LSU posted five sacks and Texas A&M four against the Hogs. The offensive interior is solid, with juniors Alvin Bailey and Travis Swanson leading the way. David Hurd is a better-than-average pass protector, though his run blocking needs work. Jason Peacock has starting experience and a mean streak, while Brey Cook and Tyler Deacon, both projected as starters, will receive large doses of big-time stunts, twists and blitzes for the first time. If Arkansas can find its timing in the pass game against its toughest opponents, the Hogs have a real chance for breakthrough victories.
No. 3 Will the defense stop the run better?
Every clue in camp pointed toward a stronger presence against the run after Arkansas ranked ninth in the SEC after ceding an average of 167.6 yards per game. New defensive coordinator Paul Haynes and Coach John L. Smith filled the players’ ears with this mantra: Stop the run. The Hogs’ depth at defensive tackle is a great start, and the concerns about linebacker depth might have ebbed a bit with decent play there from Terrell Williams, Otha Peters and company while Tenarius Wright and Alonzo Highsmith healed up in camp. The young safeties are willing hitters; they just have to know their assignments and play fast. A healthy Eric Bennett to open the season would be a huge lift toward slowing the run. The answer seems to be yes.
No. 2 How much will Arkansas miss the presence of Bobby Petrino?
The Razorbacks will miss Petrino’s cunning, his precision at preparation and his game-day brilliance over four seasons where they averaged 430.8 yards per game and 33 points. Yet, there’s a chance they could play a little looser without the demanding presence of Petrino on the sidelines. Whether it replaces Petrino’s acumen for analyzing defensive tendencies and attacking weakness in a formation with uncanny consistency, that’s another matter. His confidence in crunch-time moments was a plus, and his aggressive play-calling often worked. What the Hogs won’t miss is his berating of officials, as well as players and coaches, which could wear thin. Petrino could have been — and could still be — a great coach without the over-the-top anger and language.
No. 1 Can the Razorbacks overtake Alabama and LSU in the SEC West?
It could certainly happen, but the odds would seem against it. The Hogs were 2-2 last season in SEC road games, where they were outscored 131-91 and allowed 32.7 points a game. There are no giants like Alabama and LSU on the road slate, but all four road games are expected to be battles. Defeating Alabama at home, which the Razorbacks haven’t done since the Leigh Tiffin meltdown of 2006, will be a chore, but the Crimson Tide are undergoing another personnel transition on defense, much like 2010, so they could be vulnerable early. Staying healthy, catching some good breaks and winning the turnover battles are all imperative for Arkansas to scramble to the top of the SEC West for the first time since 2006.