Arkansas is one of the biggest mysteries in the nation this season because of its once-in-a-lifetime offseason coaching change.
The Hogs won 11 games last season and expectations were high again for this fall, but Bobby Petrino was fired as coach in April after a motorcycle accident exposed a relationship with a subordinate.
Veteran coach John L. Smith was tabbed to take over for a year on an interim basis. He had been the Hogs' outside linebacker coach and special teams coordinator for three seasons before leaving in December for the coaching job at FCS member Weber State, his alma mater. But five months later, he was back at Arkansas.
He takes over a team filled with talent but with some questions. The biggest questions are about the receiving corps and the rush defense.
Last season: 11-2, 6-2 SEC (3rd in SEC West)
Coach: John L. Smith (1st season at Arkansas; 132-86, 19th season overall)
Returning starters (minimum 7 starts last season): Offense (6) – G Alvin Bailey, TE Chris Gragg, WR Cobi Hamilton, T Grant Peacock, C Travis Swanson, QB Tyler Wilson. Defense (6) – S Eric Bennett, T Byran Jones, T DeQuinta Jones, LB Alonzo Highsmith, CB Tevin Mitchel, E Tenarius Wright (moved to LB). Special teams (2) – P Dylan Breeding, K Zach Hocker.
Fast fact: Arkansas tied a school record with 11 wins last season; the Hogs also won 11 in 1964 and 1977.
There still is a Petrino calling plays, but it's Paul and not Bobby. Paul Petrino was Illinois' coordinator last season, and he had been hired by his brother before the motorcycle incident.
Senior QB Tyler Wilson is one of the best in the nation. He's a strong-armed guy who threw for 3,638 yards and 24 touchdowns last season, his first as the starter.
Wilson should benefit from the return of TB Knile Davis, who missed last season with an ankle injury. He rushed for 1,322 yards and 13 TDs in 2010, and seemed to be on the verge of a truly big season before he was injured. Depth at tailback is excellent with Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo. Johnson is a shifty guy with the speed to turn the corner. Wingo is a tough between-the-tackles runner. In addition, both are good receivers.
The receiving corps is somewhat of a mystery. Senior Cobi Hamilton was the Hogs' fourth-leading receiver last fall, finishing with 34 receptions for 542 yards and four TDs. At a minimum, he should double each of those totals this season. But no other returning wide receiver caught more than nine passes last season. Juniors Javontee Herndon and Julian Horton are first in line for starting spots; they have combined for 21 catches for 307 yards in their careers. Sophomore Keante Minor, junior college transfer Demetrius Wilson and one or two true freshmen will be in the mix, too. Backup QB Brandon Mitchell also should get some work at receiver. TE Chris Gragg could become even more of a weapon; he caught 41 passes last fall.
C Travis Swanson and G Alvin Bailey, both juniors, should contend for all-league honors. T Jason Peacock is the other returning starter up front, but he is not a lock to start. Sophomore Brey Cook and junior David Hurd, a former walk-on, also are in contention for starting tackle jobs. The open guard spot could be a free-for-all among Tyler Deacon, Mitch Smothers and Luke Charpentier. Smothers also can play tackle and center, giving coaches a lot of flexibility.
Arkansas' ends bear watching. The Hogs lost All-SEC performer Jake Bequette and moved returning starter Tenarius Wright to inside linebacker. Chris Smith and Trey Flowers are in line to start, but there are high expectations for junior college transfer Austin Flynn, who had 18.5 sacks in his two seasons at Los Angeles Harbor College and had a good spring. Colton Miles-Nash, who has bounced back and forth between defensive end and tight end in his career, is back at defensive end and should be part of the rotation, too.
The situation is much better at tackle with Byran Jones and Robert Thomas. Senior DeQuinta Jones has been a part-time starter throughout his career and is a valuable part of the tackle rotation.
Wright's move to linebacker could pay off big. He is quick and aggressive, and he should help toughen up the middle of the Hogs' defense. Alonzo Highsmith is a returning starter at the position and was a solid performer last fall after transferring in from junior college. Senior Matt Marshall, who has 16 tackles in his career, could nail down a starting spot with a strong summer camp. True freshman Otha Peters will get every opportunity to play a key reserve role.
Two starters return in the secondary, and one of those is sophomore CB Tevin Mitchel, who looks like a star on the rise. He is physical, aggressive and could become a shutdown corner. Senior Darius Winston was a five-star recruit, but he never has lived up to those expectations. He has good speed but never has seemed to grasp the nuances of the position. Senior Kaelon Kennybrew, a transfer from Mississippi Valley State, had a good spring and could find himself playing major minutes. Redshirt freshmen Davyon McKinney and Kelvin Fisher also will be in the hunt for time.
Eric Bennett is a returning starter at safety; he was fourth on the team with 74 tackles last season. Physical senior Ross Rasner, who has played extensively in his career at safety and a hybrid safety/linebacker spot, should line up alongside Bennett. Depth at safety is a concern.
Special teams should be a strength. K Zach Hocker has a strong leg and hit 21 of his 27 field goal attempts last season, and P Dylan Breeding averaged 45.3 yards per attempt. Both should vie for all-league honors.
Johnson is an excellent kick returner; he holds the school record with 102 career kickoff returns and is tied for fourth on the SEC's career list with three kick returns for touchdowns. His career kickoff return average of 24.3 yards ranks fifth in school history. The Hogs do need a new punt returner.
The coverage units need help; the Hogs did an especially horrible job covering punts last fall, allowing 13.96 yards per return and two TDs.
The Hogs open with four consecutive home games and have eight home games overall, and they don't play their third road game until Nov. 10.
They get two games to acclimate themselves, against FCS member Jacksonville State and Louisiana-Monroe, before welcoming Alabama in one of the biggest SEC games of the season. LSU also plays the Hogs in Fayetteville.
The flipside is that each of the four road games should be somewhat of a tough test: Texas A&M, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State.
Bobby Petrino's presence on the sideline was a good thing for Arkansas. He was a master playcaller, and he generally found a way to get things done offensively. There is no question he added a certain swagger to Arkansas' offense.
Yes, there still is a Petrino calling plays, but Paul isn't in Bobby's class. It's not hard to surmise that Bobby Petrino's departure is going to mean an extra loss for Arkansas this season.
As good as Arkansas was last season in winning 11 games, the Hogs lost to Alabama and LSU by 24 points each. Both those teams have to visit Fayetteville this season, but is the home-field advantage enough to make up that big a margin? Remember that Arkansas wasn't dominant defensively last season, and lost its best player at each level of the defense: Bequette, LB Jerry Franklin and S Tramain Thomas.
The Hogs certainly appear to have the talent to win 10 or 11 again. But there also are enough questions that a prediction of a nine-win season isn't out of line.
The recruiting side
Average recruiting ranking for past five years: 32nd nationally
The buzz: When Bobby Petrino was fired in April and Smith hired as a one-year interim, questions cropped up as to how the Razorbacks would recruit this cycle without prospects knowing who the coach would be in the future. So far, the Hogs are doing just fine. It was a coup when Fayetteville (Ark.) High teammates Austin Allen, Brooks Ellis and Alex Brignoni decided to stay home, and Arkansas also has received pledges from some key Louisiana prospects. – Rivals.com
WR Cobi Hamilton. Hamilton was merely part of Arkansas' receiving corps last season. This season, he should contend for all-league and even All-America notice. He should be able to make the jump from being a complementary receiver to go-to guy. He has excellent size (6-3/209), good hands and can get deep.
For more on Arkansas throughout the season, check out HawgSports.com
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