FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Welcome to the inaugural SEC Country Arkansas football mailbag with beat writer Jason Kersey. In this edition, we discuss the Razorbacks’ future behind center, Bret Bielema’s tenure as coach and more.
Arkansas’ future at quarterback
Q: “Who will be Arkansas’ starting QB after Austin Allen is gone?” — Frank
Everything begins and ends in football with the quarterback, so it’s only natural for Arkansas fans to be thinking ahead to 2018. The first thing I would say is this: Razorbacks fans should enjoy Austin Allen while they have him. He is one of the top quarterbacks in the conference. If the offensive line is better — I don’t see how it couldn’t be better — and some of the young receivers develop, Allen may very well end up being the first-team All-SEC quarterback in 2017.
But, as I look into my crystal ball, I think Cole Kelley will take over behind center in 2018. The Lafayette, La., native will be a redshirt freshman this fall and is currently competing with sophomore Ty Storey to be Allen’s backup.
Storey and Kelley battled for the backup job last fall, with Storey earning the right to be No. 2 on the depth chart.
In public scrimmages this spring, Storey and Kelley had their ups and downs. There is also true freshman Daulton Hyatt, who will — barring a catastrophic rash of injuries — redshirt in 2017. And of course, I suppose it’s possible that 2018 quarterback commit Connor Noland shows up next summer and surges past everyone else, although that seems unlikely.
Kelley’s arm strength and the fact that he’s kept things so close with Storey since he’s been on campus lead me to believe that he’s the guy to take over for Allen. I’ve believed he would be the Hogs’ 2018 starter since last fall and I’ve seen nothing to change my mind.
Arkansas linebacker struggles
Q: “I know linebackers don’t grow on trees. I also know that every great defense begins and ends with having adequate linebackers. What’s our problem? (Martrell) Spaight was the last one that could both cover and stop the run. Why do we struggle in recruiting them? Why do we struggle in developing great ones? The move to the 3-4 is only going to highlight our inadequacy in this area, right?” — Cody
This is a topic that certainly has frustrated just about everyone from fans to coaches. I will say, though, that there are signs that linebacker development might not be quite as dire as you may think.
If Dre Greenlaw is able to stay healthy, there is ample evidence that he is capable of really good things. Obviously, injuries were an issue with him last season and even this spring.
Randy Ramsey will be a junior this fall and should absolutely thrive in the new 3-4 system. He is an excellent pass rusher who is also athletic enough to help in pass coverage. There may be no Arkansas defender who benefits more from this schematic change than Ramsey.
To me, Brooks Ellis is the type of linebacker who would have been an excellent, all-conference player even 10 years ago, but his impact was reduced against these up-tempo, spread offenses. Don’t get me wrong — Ellis still had a nice college career and may well make it in the NFL, where no-huddle offenses aren’t as prevalent.
I think De’Jon Harris is someone to keep an eye on. Coaches obviously thought a lot of him last season, when he played as a true freshman. We also need to see just how much the linebackers who redshirted last season — Alexy Jean-Baptiste, Giovanni LaFrance and Dee Walker — have developed and what they can do before judging them.
But yes, there have been some disappointments in linebacker recruiting. Senior Dwayne Eugene has had a hard time contributing throughout his career, although there is hope for him in the new system.
And don’t forget that Arkansas has a verbal commitment from 4-star prospect Bumper Pool, who is entering his senior high school season in Texas. Pool has an impressive offer list and seems solidly committed to the Razorbacks.
The bottom line is that linebacker has absolutely been a problem for Arkansas the last couple seasons, but there are some signs that things could improve. The new 3-4 system gives coaches an opportunity to recruit a different kind of linebacker. And now linebacker coaching duties are split between two assistants, which could give those guys more one-on-one development time and result in better play.
Speaking of Arkansas linebackers …
Q: “Is Dre Greenlaw as good as we think he is?” — Jackson
I think Greenlaw has the potential to be a very good player. He’s athletic enough to keep up with high-paced offenses and tough enough to make lots of tackles.
Greenlaw showed flashes of excellence during his true freshman season in 2015, but also made lots of typical freshman mistakes. As a sophomore, he seemed improved before his first foot injury — Oct. 8 against Alabama — and then returned for the Belk Bowl only to reinjure the foot. He was limited throughout the spring.
If Greenlaw manages to stay healthy in 2017, he could have a breakout season.
Potential nonconference foes for Arkansas
Q: “What out-of-conference teams would you most like to see Arkansas schedule? I like that we’ve played a lot of Big 12 schools lately, but I’d like to see us branch out. If I had to pick one team per conference it’d be: Miami (ACC), Oklahoma State or West Virginia (Big 12), Nebraska (Big Ten) and Utah (Pac-12). I feel like these would be cool destinations and good matchups for Arkansas.” — Michael
I actually wrote about this before last season. Of your list, the two programs Arkansas has never
faced in football are West Virginia and Utah. I think both of those would make for cool, exciting nonconference games. I’ll say this — Morgantown, W.V., is one of the coolest college towns I’ve been to, and the game-day experience is fun and unique.
I’d like to see Arkansas and Oklahoma play considering the short distance between the two campuses and some of the connections those programs have, such as Barry Switzer and the relationship between athletic directors Jeff Long and Joe Castiglione. The Razorbacks and Sooners haven’t played on the gridiron since the 2002 Cotton Bowl, and Long apparently floated the idea a couple years ago.
An Arkansas-Michigan home-and-home series was taken away from us when the Wolverines decided to cancel it and renew their rivalry with Notre Dame. A week of trash talk between Bret Bielema and Jim Harbaugh would be too much fun, and surely Arkansas fans would love the opportunity to travel to the Big House.
I’m also fully in favor of Arkansas playing Wisconsin, pitting Bielema against his old school.
Here are the Power 5 conference programs Arkansas has never played in football:
ACC: Boston College, Clemson, Florida State, Louisville, N.C. State, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Virginia, Wake Forest
Big Ten: Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan State, Penn State, Purdue
Big 12: West Virginia
Pac-12: Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Utah, Washington, Washington State
Louisville stands out because of the Bobby Petrino connection. How much fun would that matchup be? Oregon would be great. With Clemson, you have the Danny Ford connection.
Really, there are a ton of great potential matchups out there. Long and Bielema haven’t shied away from playing those kinds of games, so we’ll just have to see where they decide to go in the future.
Arkansas’ ceiling under Bret Bielema
Q: “What do you think the ceiling is for Bret Bielema at Arkansas?” — Ryan
That’s a pretty tough question to answer. The Razorbacks made steady improvement every year under Bielema until last season, when they slipped backward in their overall and SEC records — although if not for a pair of second-half collapses to end the season, the Hogs would have won 9 games and continued that trend of improvement.
Arkansas had gotten to a point under Bobby Petrino where 10- and 11-win seasons were the expectation, and obviously Petrino’s dreadful decision-making and firing set the program back. Entering Year 5 under Bielema, though, it’s not unreasonable for fans to wonder when they can expect to be a legitimate SEC West contender.
Athletic director Jeff Long made it clear to me during our interview last month that Bielema is nowhere near the hot seat. He obviously still believes Bielema is capable of leading the Razorbacks to greatness, and as long as that remains the case Bielema isn’t going anywhere.
I don’t expect Arkansas will be in the SEC West chase this season, and things are only going to get tougher if Ed Orgeron revives LSU and Nick Saban keeps doing his thing in Tuscaloosa.
So, where is the ceiling? It’s really, really hard to say, but I don’t see any reason why the Razorbacks shouldn’t begin pushing for 10 wins in another couple seasons.