It’s time for the speculation to end and the football to begin as the No. 18 Arkansas Razorbacks open the season against the Texas-El Paso Miners at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Coach Bret Bielema’s Hogs plan to pick up where they left off last season after winning three of their last four games. In the summer, the Razorbacks became somewhat of a trendy dark-horse pick to contend for the SEC West among national prognosticators, and now we will begin to learn if the Razorbacks can back up their faith.
I’m inclined to believe, the Razorbacks can live up to the hype, but I am interested to see what type of first impression the Hogs will make this season. Will the Hogs sleepwalk through their opener with the overmatched Miners or will they play crisp, clean football?
The Razorbacks have been shorthanded at receiver since Bielema arrived on campus, but that may not be the case this season. Senior Keon Hatcher led Arkansas in receiving a year ago and should be even better this season. Everyone in the stadium is eager to see if junior college speedster Dominique Reed is the real deal. Jared Cornelius and Drew Morgan are listed as possible starters depending on the formation. Damon Mitchell has also impressed behind Hatcher and Jojo Robinson would likely start if he were not suspended for the first half as part of a summer disciplinary measure.
Junior Alex Collins appears poised for a big year, particularly with his running mate Jonathan Williams out for the season with an ankle injury that required surgery. But Collins can’t carry the load by his lonesome. Junior Kody Walker weighs 260 pounds and is quick as he has ever been in a Razorback uniform, but the jury is out on whether he can be an effective runner in the SEC. Freshman Rawleigh Williams has shown promise, too, but it is a big step up from high school ball to college. How well Walker and Williams play this season will prove pivotal to the Hogs’ fortunes.
The Razorbacks’ offensive front has garnered plenty of plaudits in the preseason, but the simple fact is the group wore down late in games last season. Bielema believes his Hogs up front are in better shape this season with more endurance. We many not learn if that is so this week, or next, but the competition stiffens as September fades into October.
The Razorbacks may have the best tandem of tight ends in the country with preseason All-American Hunter Henry and fellow junior Jeremy Sprinkle. The blitzing nature of the Miners defense could give both the chance to put up some big numbers on Saturday.
Starting senior Brandon Allen of Fayetteville has his defenders and detractors after starting for two difficult seasons, but the final chapter in his book as a Razorback has yet to be written. If Allen can quarterback Arkansas to an eight-win season or better, maybe most Hog fans can agree that he at least progressed as a Razorback.
Bielema is excited about the Razorbacks’ depth up front, but only time will tell if these Razorbacks will be as productive as NFL draftees Jeremy Flowers and Darius Philon. JaMichael Winston has developed into a team leader at his defensive end spot, while DeMarcus Hodge is in the best shape of his Razorback career. Defensive tackle Taiwan Johnson could be a breakout performer for the Hogs after playing well in the Houston Bowl.
Throughout spring practice and preseason camp, the Razorbacks worked hard to get their best players positioned at their best spots in the Hogs’ three-linebacker base defense. Junior Brooks Ellis of Fayetteville has settled into the weak-side playmaker spot since spring, but Josh Williams and Khalia Hackett have jockeyed back and forth between the middle and strong-side spots. At least for this game, Williams will man the middle with Hackett on the strong side.
This could be the best secondary the Razorbacks have deployed since the late 1990s during Houston Nutt’s first two seasons. Bielema believes he has five cornerbacks who are SEC ready with Jared Collins and D.J. Dean leading the pack. Rohan Gaines has developed into a leader in the secondary at strong safety, while Josh Lidell has impressed at free safety. Backup safety Santos Ramirez is regarded as one of the biggest hitters on the team.
The Razorbacks graduated their specialists from last year, so it will be interesting to see how the kicking game progresses this season. Cole Hedlund will place kick, Adam McFain will kick off and Toby Baker will punt. Jared Cornelius is set to return punts, while Eric Hawkins and Cornelius will return kickoffs.
No one has a crystal ball and teams change greatly over the course of a season. The Razorbacks were much better in November last year than when the season opened. If that proves to be the case again this season, things might be really exciting when bowl bids are passed out.