Bret Bielema took over a floundering program in 2013 and built Arkansas back to respectability. Taking a program from bad to good is difficult – growing from good to great is significantly harder.
Arkansas has struggled to gain a foothold in the brutal SEC West. The Razorbacks are good for an upset or two late, but have not yet put together a complete season. Forced to replace a quarterback, running back stable and offensive line, this year will be no easier.
Here are five bold predictions about Arkansas’ 2016 campaign.
The defense steps up in a big way
Arkansas statistically has been one of the more underrated defenses in the SEC the past few years. A power run offense helps keep possessions down, which helps boost the numbers. This year, Arkansas’ defense is good enough to carry the offense for stretches.
The Razorbacks’ success depends on one man: former Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads. He was hired to fix a porous secondary that ranked No. 117 in passing yards allowed last season. If there is reasonable improvement, Arkansas returns nine defensive starters overall, including productive linebackers Brooks Ellis and Dre Greenlaw. Defensive end Deatrich Wise is a sleeper to make All-America teams.
Austin Allen shows flashes of brilliance
It’s never easy to replace a quarterback, especially considering Brandon Allen was one of the best in program history. But fans are optimistic as Brandon’s younger brother, Austin, takes control of the offense.
While Austin does not have the experience Brandon had going into last season, he has perhaps slightly better physical ability. As a redshirt junior, Austin also has more experience in the offense than Brandon had before taking over. There will be growing pains, but Austin will bring much of the same flash as his brother.
Jeremy Sprinkle is a Mackey Award finalist
Few teams use the tight end as effectively as Arkansas. In addition to being a key cog in run blocking schemes, Bret Bielema’s tight ends are exceptional at flashing downfield and being a big, reliable target for the quarterback. It’s easy to see why Hunter Henry was able to walk away as the nation’s best tight end last season.
Sprinkle has the same kind of ability. As a junior, Sprinkle compiled 389 yards and six touchdowns as a secondary tight end. Now the featured piece, Sprinkle’s numbers will balloon. He will be an important option for a young quarterback.
Arkansas peaks late, pulls an upset
It’s hard to even consider this a bold prediction anymore. Bielema’s physical offense is a nightmare for SEC teams late in the year, when they are inevitably banged up. The Razorbacks are 4-2 against ranked opponents in November the last two years.
The two games to circle will be home games against Florida and LSU. The Razorbacks have beaten the Tigers the last two seasons, and would love to destroy their SEC title hopes. Matching up with Florida’s stout defense should be an intriguing matchup of its own. Arkansas will win one of those games.
Devwah Whaley becomes the featured back
It’s rare for a true freshman to play major minutes in the SEC West, but Whaley is a special talent. A consensus top-100 recruit out of Beaumont (TX) Central, Whaley has the combination of size and speed to be an elite performer.
As a senior in high school, Whaley ran for 1,701 yards and 23 touchdowns despite receiving the bulk of the defense’s attention. His 216-pound frame gives him more ability to shed tacklers than expected. Along with sophomore Rawleigh Williams, expect Whaley to contend for 1,000 rushing yards.