Spring football games are odd animals. When a coach divides the teams up evenly for a straight-up game, they are absolutely meaningless. It’s not a pick-up game, but there absolutely is no continuity, and it’s a waste of practice time.
Arkansas coach Bret Bielema wisely avoided such a nightmare last Saturday with the Razorbacks’ Red-White scrimmage by pitting his starters against the rest of the squad. The starting White squad won, 39-12, with the starting defense not allowing a touchdown and only 49 total yards. Obviously, those are good numbers, but it’s hard to say exactly how meaningful they are.
I’m in no way ready to claim the Razorbacks will have a dominating defense or even one that will rank in the top half of the SEC. Too much is yet to be seen. However, the Razorbacks look to be sounder and even disruptive up front and more confident and less confused on the back end than last year.
A how all that will translate on the field against an opponent next fall is unknown. Remember, Bielema bragged on the defensive front all last summer, but only late in the season did that front yield much pressure on the quarterback, and deficiencies in depth at linebacker and confusion in the secondary neutralized those gains.
It was the Hogs’ offense that kept them in games and won games in the last two-thirds of the season. The Razorbacks may or may not have that luxury next fall.
I do like the move of Jeremiah Ledbetter inside from defensive end to defensive tackle. He will be a bit undersized in SEC play, but Ledbetter is powerfully built and his the burst to be disruptive up the middle.
Defensive end Deatrich Wise looks like the closest thing the Hogs have to a preseason all-conference candidate. He finished the season strong last year with eight sacks against SEC opposition in Arkansas’ last seven games. Reportedly he has been unblockable in spring ball. Wise has proven SEC credentials, but you still have to wonder if the “unblockable” label has more to do him or the inexperience of the offensive line he dominated.
The return of Randy Ramsey, who missed last season due to academic issues, to the linebacker corps, and the development of Khalia Hackett and Duane Eugene appears to give Arkansas more options and depth at the positions, something that was severely lacking a year ago.
After Josh Williams went down with a broken leg against Tennessee in early October, starting linebackers Brooks Ellis and Dre Greenlaw played nearly every meaningful down the rest of the season. Any help they get this season will only make them more effective.
Under the direction of former Iowa State head coach Paul Rhodes, the secondary looked more aggressive and sound, but again, it’s hard to say if that is true progress or just familiarity from working against the same offense for four weeks.
Offensively there are even more question marks. Arkansas’ receivers are touted as talented and deep, but senior Dominique Reed missed what could have been a TD pass, and senior Keon Hatcher fumbled what should have been a touchdown outside the back of the end zone. Those are the type of missed opportunities that cost a team in SEC play. When an offense’s most experienced position group makes mistakes like that, it’s not exactly encouraging.
Austin Allen (13 of 19 for 141 yards) looks the part at quarterback, but you know the first-year starter still has a learning curve to work through that really won’t start until the Hogs begin playing games. The fact that the offensive line remains a jumble and the hopes of the running game rests on two players — Rawleigh Williams and Kody Walker — who are coming off injuries and an incoming freshman Devwah Whaley, one has to wonder how quickly the offense will come together?
While Bielema has spoken of improvement by his place kickers this spring, Cole Hedlund (6 of 10), Lane Sailing (3 of 5), and Adam McFain (3 of 5) only connected on 12 of 18 field goals in the Red-White game. That’s not good enough.
Overall, the Hogs do seem to be a talented team with more depth than last year if they stay relatively healthy, but the offense lacks experience, and the improvement on defense can only be deemed questionable until it is proven against an actual opponent. I could see this team winning a couple of more games than last year if everything falls in place, or losing a couple more if it doesn’t.
Obviously the coaching staff has a better and more exact assessment of where the team stands; however, the more concerned they are about a position, the less forthcoming they will be about it to the public. It’s just not wise to tell all when things are uncertain.
No doubt the coaches have a better idea where they need to focus their energy, but from an outsider’s view, other than nailing down Allen as the starting quarterback, the Razorbacks exit spring drills with many of the same questions they entered with.
Fans should always be optimistic about their team in the summer, but expectations should be measured cautiously.