Spring football 25: Arkansas Razorbacks

Dr. Saturday will be looking at the 25 most interesting teams headed into spring football through March, examining which programs have the biggest questions, the most expectations and the best storylines. This isn’t a list of the 25 best teams going into the spring, just the 25 we’re keeping the closest eye on. Previously: Tulsa

[Also: East Tennessee State woos former Vols coach Phillip Fulmer]

What happened in 2012
Last season was definitely one to forget. The Razorbacks came into the offseason as one of the nation’s hottest teams and many were picking them not only to win the SEC, but also to challenge for a national championship. But a fateful motorcycle ride and subsequent crash by coach Bobby Petrino set events in motion that would ruin the Razorbacks in 2012.

Petrino was fired after media and his boss, athletic director Jeff Long, learned that he had been having an affair with a subordinate he had hired. Long hired John L. Smith on a 10-month contract and what resulted was a disappointing 4-8 campaign and a lot of unhappy players who were more interested in their own self–preservation and futures than trying to make the 2012 Arkansas team a worthwhile contender.

In comes Bret Bielema in from Wisconsin with hopes of righting the ship sooner than later, but much of the nucleus that made Arkansas a potential contender prior to the 2012 season, especially on offense, is gone.

What makes them interesting in 2013
Can Arkansas be the team many hoped they could be or is last season a sign of bad years to come? Many believe it’s the former, especially with Bielema at the helm, but it’s going to take a yeoman’s effort to get the Razorbacks in the right mental frame of mind to believe they can be an SEC power.

And in order to get to that place of SEC power, Arkansas will have to start from scratch.

Bielema brings a bit of grittiness that Arkansas will need to have to accomplish that goal. His offensive and defensive lines were strong at Wisconsin as was his running game. If he can bring that same mentality to Arkansas, the Razorbacks may avoid a repeat of their worst season since 1992.

[Also: Denard Robinson focused on graduation while prepping for draft]

What needs to happen this spring
Many of the team’s stars are gone and the team lacks a true playmaker on either side of the ball.

The running game, which was supposed to be one of the bright spots a year ago, finished last in the SEC with 118.7 yards per game and top rushers Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson are gone.

With quarterback Tyler Wilson gone, the Razorbacks will have to choose between Brandon Allen and Brandon Mitchell. Allen is the frontrunner, but with a new coaching staff – and an almost entirely new offense – who knows which way this coaching staff will lean.

As bleak as the offense looks, the defense provides some relief. Top sackers Chris Smith and Trey Flowers return to the defensive line and Otha Peters and A.J. Turner return at linebacker. But beyond that, the Razorbacks are very thin in the front seven and will need to fill some holes this spring.

Arkansas did rank 19th nationally against the run but that’s because it’s pass defense was absolutely atrocious. Tevin Mitchell, Rohan Gaines and Will Hines all return in the secondary and that’s not necessarily a good thing. The Razorbacks allowed 285.83 passing yards per game, which ranked last in the SEC. It was also last in pass efficiency defense. Of the 45 touchdowns Arkansas allowed last year, 24 of them were passing scores.

[Also: Heisman winner Johnny Manziel gets into it with angry fans]

Game changers
Running back Jonathan Williams enters spring as the team’s top tailback. Even though he only got 45 carries a year ago, he looked good in limited time with 231 yards. If Arkansas takes on Bielema’s passion for having a run-first offense, Williams will be a main piece in the turnaround.

Wild cards
Brandon Mitchell is coming back to quarterback after spending last year as a receiver (he did have 17 catches for 272 yards). This could present an interesting opportunity for Bielema. Mitchell is more of a dual-threat than Allen, which doesn’t necessarily fit into the Bielema offenses of the past, but could be advantageous in an SEC that has struggled with dual-threat quarterbacks. Mitchell will start the spring behind Brandon Allen, but don’t be surprised – even if he doesn’t win the starting nod – to see Mitchell on the field.

Key games
Sept. 28 Texas A&M
Oct. 19 at Alabama
Nov. 9 at Ole Miss
Nov. 23 Mississippi State

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Check out Dr. Saturday's other spring previews: Notre Dame, Texas, Oklahoma, Stanford, South Carolina , Baylor, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Clemson, West Virginia, Missouri .

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