FAYETTEVILLE -- An Arkansas football team eager to atone for last year's 3-9 season reports to campus today with numerous questions to answer and an immediate challenge in front of it.
The Razorbacks enter Coach Bret Bielema's second season with low outside expectations -- SEC media picked Arkansas last among the seven teams in the Western Division -- and knowing fully well they will enter their Aug. 30 season opener on the road, on SEC TV, against defending conference champion Auburn.
Arkansas will bring a nine-game losing steak, the longest in school history, into its opener, but there are also reasons for optimism when the Razorbacks begin fall practice Monday.
Bielema has seen his team make strides in the transition toward the style he prefers on offense, a more rugged run game that effectively sets up play-action pass calls.
The Razorbacks have seven starters back on that side of the ball: Quarterback Brandon Allen, tailback Jonathan Williams, receiver Keon Hatcher, tight end Hunter Henry and linemen Brey Cook, Denver Kirkland and Dan Skipper.
Eight starters return on defense: Linemen Trey Flowers and Darius Philon, linebackers Braylon Mitchell and Brooks Ellis, and defensive backs Rohan Gaines, Will Hines, Tevin Mitchel and Alan Turner.
Punter Sam Irwin-Hill, who made a sparkling debut in 2013, and dependable deep snapper Alan D'Appollonio are back in special teams, but the Razorbacks must find a replacement for kicker Zach Hocker, the school's all-time leading scorer.
Arkansas, 7-17 the past two seasons, hasn't been to a bowl game since the Bobby Petrino-coached Razorbacks beat Kansas Staste in the Cotton Bowl after the 2011 season.
A long list of on-field issues must be addressed before the Razorbacks can even entertain thoughts of returning to a bowl.
Here is a look at some of the biggest questions facing Arkansas as it heads into the season:
Can the play be better?
Bielema made sure to point out at various summer stops that Allen was his guy at quarterback.
Allen, an 11-game starter in 2013, played hurt after separating the AC joint in his right (throwing) shoulder on a touchdown dive in a 21-3 victory over Southern Miss in the third game last season. He missed considerable practice time and completed a league-low 47.7 percent of his passes in SEC games with an efficiency rating of 97.3, also a conference low. Key interception returns by Texas A&M, Florida and South Carolina during a three-game stretch were all back-breakers.
Allen will enter the season in a better physical and mental state.
"It's always fun to watch these kids when they're like Brandon," offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said last week, "when they don't have the season they wanted to have and how quick they can come back and rebound from that and the opportunities that await them."
Converted tight end AJ Derby will keep a hand in the quarterback preparations, while redshirt freshman Austin Allen and true freshman Rafe Peavey, an early enrollee who went through spring practice, gain more experience with the system in camp.
Is it a primary concern?
Bielema is banking on improved play in the defensive backfield. He even said at SEC media days that opponents likely viewed the Arkansas cornerbacks as an area to exploit last fall, but he predicted the corners would be perhaps the most improved unit in 2014.
The group is experienced and eager to capitalize on a more aggressive defensive approach under new coordinator Robb Smith..
Mitchel, a senior, is looking to turn the page on a mostly disastrous 2013 season as a leader in the group, while senior Carroll Washington, junior Hines and sophomores Jared Collins and D.J. Dean have starting experience.
Arkansas coaches are looking forward to the additions of signees Santos Ramirez, Cornelius Floyd and Henre Toliver, all listed at 6-1, as a new wave of taller corners.
The safety position is still lacking for depth. Senior Alan Turner, whose 97 tackles led the team in 2013, and junior Rohan Gaines have logged plenty of playing time. Redshirt freshman De'Andre Coley is being counted on for impact play, while junior Davyon McKinney and true freshman Josh Liddell are among those vying for a spot in the two-deep.
So, who is the go-to guy?
If there is one position that needs an increase in impact players, this is it.
Keon Hatcher, one of the group's leaders, has not been consistent and showed fumbling issues with increased touches last season. Senior Demetrius Wilson, who tore a knee ligament early in camp last August, should be a big help, and speedster Eric Hawkins has a big opening to take more reps after D'Arthur Cowan's dismissal over the summer.
Redshirt freshman Drew Morgan caught lots of passes last fall camp but disappeared when the season began.
Newcomers should make their presence felt. True freshman Jared Cornelius is an early enrollee who had a big spring and could be a long-term fixture with good hands in the slot. Transfer Cody Hollister, who stood out in catching percentage in the spring, also should emerge.
Kendrick Edwards, 6-6, gives Arkansas a fade-route option it lacked last season. Edwards and fellow freshman JoJo Robinson, a shifty 6-footer, should get a shot to contribute right away.
Is there depth, production?
The Razorbacks know what they'll get from senior end Trey Flowers, who will look to strengthen his run-stopping abilities this season.
Tackle Darius Philon could be on the brink of SEC stardom after a good redshirt freshman season with five starts. Philon and senior DeMarcus Hodge are huge, physical talents on the inside, joined by highly touted freshman Bijhon Jackson.
The other ends, led by sophomores Deatrich Wise, Brandon Lewis and JaMichael Winston, should be ready to make consistent contributions and occasionally drop inside.
Depth could come from Tevin Beanum, Ke'Tyrus Marks and Taiwan Johnson, and converted offensive players Cordale Boyd and Mitchell Loewen, who have an opportunity to make things happen in camp, as do freshmen Anthony Brown and Armon Watts.
Not new, but improved?
Losing 50-game starter Travis Swanson at center and left tackle David Hurd will hurt, but the Hogs have stockpiled at these spots like no other position.
Right tackle Brey Cook is one of three returning starters, along with left tackle Dan Skipper (who started at guard last year) and right guard Denver Kirkland. Luke Charpentier and Mitch Smothers will open camp at left guard and center, respectively, but veteran Grady Ollison and newcomers like senior transfer Cameron Jefferson, junior transfer Sebastian Tretola, and freshmen Brian Wallace and Frank Ragnow are expected to push for playing time.
Depth is on hand, with players like Austin Beck, Marcus Danenhauer and Chris Stringer having multiple years on the roster.
Can it be a strength?
For the first time in several years Arkansas will have back a core unit with solid playing time under its belt with outside backers Braylon Mitchell and Martrell Spaight and middle linebacker Brooks Ellis backed by veterans like Otha Peters, Daunte Carr and hybrid player T.Q. Coleman.
Linebackers coach Randy Shannon said he expects the unit's better familiarity with the system and the staff to produce a faster performance and better results.
Those who have watched summer workouts expect the incoming linebacker class, with players like Josh Williams, Khalia Hackett, Randy Ramsey and Dwayne Eugene, to form a bedrock core on the second level.
Sports on 08/03/2014
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