FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Twenty-four more hours and football will have returned to the hills of Northwest Arkansas. The Razorbacks start spring practice Tuesday night outside the Fred W. Smith Center.
Arkansas will have 15 spring practices ahead of the Red-White game at the end of April. Up to that point, however, there are more than a handful of questions that need answering.
Some will be completely before spring’s out. Most will not. Most, in fact, will only have questions go more in-depth, more analyzed.
1. The 3-4
This is the easiest one.
Arkansas is making the transition from a 4-2-5 to a 3-4. Adding two extra linebackers seems like an awfully large task for a team that struggled to field two healthy and skilled ones simultaneously last year. But the roster makes sense for it.
Randy Ramsey, for example, is better suited as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 than a defensive end in a 4-3. Dre Greenlaw and De’Jon Harris seem like ideal fits on the inside. There are actually more linebackers, in number, on the roster than defensive linemen, too, despite the difficulty finding them last year.
2. Is returning four of five O-line starters back a good thing?
This is my personal biggest one.
The Razorbacks offensive line last year was, to be kind, not very good. Arkansas’ 35 sacks allowed ranked tied for 106th in the country. And even though Rawleigh Williams III led the SEC in yards rushing in the regular season, Arkansas’ team rushing attack was just 77th in the nation.
Dan Skipper is the only starter gone. So, in theory, Arkansas returns loads of experience. But what if that experience is mostly subpar experience? Frank Ragnow is a star, to be certain, but it remains to seen whether Hjalte Froholdt, Johnny Gibson, Brian Wallace, Colton Jackson and others can improve.
3. Safety, please
This is the most important for fixing the big-play issues.
Among Josh Liddell, Santos Ramirez, and De’Andre Coley, not one of them had a season to write home about last year. Too often, opposing teams were torching the middle of the Arkansas defense in the backfield. And not just on passes. Think about Trevor Knight and those runs up the gut.
Redshirt freshmen Micahh Smith and Deon Edwards are two of the most likely to make an impact here, and they should have every opportunity to do so. Keep an eye on Kevin Richardson, though. Richardson’s shift from cornerback to safety, if he can make it, would be helpful for the whole unit.
4. How is this different with the new guys?
This is one that’s a little less concrete.
John Scott Jr. was hired as the team’s new defensive line coach, replacing Rory Segrest. Chad Walker was hired to coach outside linebackers; his hire coming in the stead of exited defensive coordinator Robb Smith. Paul Rhoads shifted out of just secondary duties to be the new DC. All in all, the defense has had quite the coaching shakeup.
It won’t be immediately easy to see how each new coach, or old coach in a new position, is all that different from the one he is replacing. But it might not be all that hard, either. Personalities are the biggest, most visible thing, usually. And given the clash of personalities among those who exited, keeping an eye on the new ones will be interesting, if not all that meaningful in the early going.
5. Who is catching passes?
Other than Jared Cornelius, returning Arkansas wide receivers have a grand total of 2 career receptions among them. The two players who do have those grabs, sophomores La’Michael Pettway and Deon Stewart, may not even make the top five or six in the rotation.
New faces like junior-college transfers Brandon Martin and Jonathan Nance are expected to come in and establish themselves in the mix. T.J. Hammonds, who is moving from a mostly running back role to a mostly wide receiver role, should stake a claim, too. Jordan Jones, who redshirted last year, was the most talked-about player who did sit out the year during last season.
There are loads of options, but parsing them will take some doing.