FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Welcome to SEC Country’s Arkansas football mailbag with beat writer Jason Kersey. In this edition, we discuss the impact of tight end Jeremy Patton, Paul Rhoads and the new defense and more.
New Arkansas tight end Jeremy Patton’s impact
Q: Will Jeremy Patton step in as TE1 for Hogs in the fall? — Joey
Arkansas got some great news earlier this week when JUCO transfer tight end Jeremy Patton finally arrived on campus after a long delay. Patton — the No. 1-ranked JUCO tight end in the 2017 recruiting class — was supposed to be here in January. After he didn’t show up in June for the first summer session, there were some very worried Razorbacks fans out there.
But now he’s safely in Fayetteville and enrolled, so how does he fit in?
Arkansas lost standout tight end Jeremy Sprinkle from the 2016 team. There are lots of talented tight ends on the roster — Austin Cantrell, Cheyenne O’Grady, Will Gragg, Jack Kraus to name a few — and all of them have an advantage on Patton because they’ve been on campus and practicing. Cantrell is virtually a lock to play in 2017 because of his superior blocking skills. But he isn’t viewed as a huge threat in the passing game and even if he was to surprise us and shine in that department, Bret Bielema likes playing with two tight ends.
At this point, I expect the Hogs’ top tight ends to be Cantrell and O’Grady when the season begins, but Patton is absolutely talented enough to make a run for serious playing time. If he starts fall camp too far behind, we will probably spend a lot of time wondering how much missing spring ball hurt him.
Asked about Patton during the spring, tight ends coach Barry Lunney Jr. said: “I’m confident in his football IQ and his love of the game that I think he can get caught up to speed really quickly once he gets all this other stuff taken care of. … What’s great about the summer rules now is you can work with them. So it allows you in a situation like this to get a guy and catch him up. I’m pretty confident we can get that done.”
Quick fix for the Arkansas defense?
Q: Do you think that in one year, Paul Rhodes can make the 3-4 scheme work? Will Arkansas still be lagging in defense or will it be a quick fix? — Strohmann
The Razorbacks defense’s improvement — or, depending on what happens, continued struggles — will be the most important and interesting Arkansas football storyline to watch in 2017. Before he was Iowa State’s head coach, Paul Rhoads was one of the most respected defensive coordinators in the country and Bielema is also a former defensive coordinator.
These are proud, successful coaches whose pride has to be hurt by the way the Arkansas defense played in 2016. And whether they intended to or not, Arkansas coaches have recruited defensive players the last few years that seem better suited for the 3-4.
But will changes in coordinator and scheme mean substantial improvement in 2017? I’m not confident that will be the case. Despite the struggles last season, that Arkansas defense had some good players — Deatrich Wise, Jeremiah Ledbetter, Brooks Ellis, Jared Collins — who are no longer on the team. That must be what is the most disappointing to the Razorbacks coaches; the Hogs really had some pretty good talent on defense and it was, in many ways, wasted.
Almost the entire defensive line is being replaced, and the only player on that unit that we know will be really good is Sosa Agim. That’s not to say the other new D-linemen won’t turn into good players; we just don’t know yet.
Dre Greenlaw and Randy Ramsey are good — possibly great — linebackers, but who else is there that we know will be good? I think De’Jon Harris will be, but he’s still largely unproven. The Arkansas safeties have struggled a lot the last two years and that is still pretty much the same group of guys.
There are just a lot of unknowns. An early barometer for defensive improvement will be the Sept. 9 TCU game. The Horned Frogs return almost their entire offense; it is very talented; and it is an up-tempo, no-huddle offense.
More on the Arkansas defense
Q: In recent years the Alabama template has been getting to the championship game with a solid defense. In the “Game of the Century,” Arkansas had a defense ranked in the top 3 in the nation. When will more emphasis be placed on the defensive side of the ball? — Paul
To be fair, playing defense has gotten exponentially more difficult since the “Game of the Century” between Arkansas and Texas in 1969. Defensive coordinators back then didn’t have to contend with the offensive systems cooked up by Hal Mumme, Mike Leach, Gus Malzahn and others like them in this era. Yes, the Texas wishbone Arkansas faced in 1969 was creative and difficult, but defenses are at a pretty significant disadvantage these days that didn’t exist five decades ago.
Alabama has definitely emphasized defense during this incredible 10-year run under Nick Saban, but the Crimson Tide are also signing elite talent every year. Arkansas has not come close to signing a recruiting class on par with Alabama in terms of pure talent. Has Arkansas had very good and even great players? Absolutely, but a lot of times, those are diamonds in the rough and overlooked guys like Trey Flowers. It’s great to go out and find guys like that, but if Arkansas is going to seriously contend for SEC championships on a consistent basis, the Hogs’ recruiting classes are going to have to start looking more like Alabama’s. That’s just a fact.
Considering Rhoads’ past success as a defensive coordinator and Bielema’s defensive pedigree, you can be sure that Arkansas is emphasizing that side of the ball during this offseason. Bielema made a lot of changes after the defensive disaster that was 2016. We’ll just have to see how that all plays out.
Will Arkansas sacks allowed drop in 2017?
Q: Arkansas allowed 35 sacks last season, ranked 103rd nationally. Do you think that number will improve, and if so, by how much? What will the keys to improving that number be? — Ryan
For most of the 2016 season, Arkansas’ offensive line was pretty much a disaster. It truly is a wonder that quarterback Austin Allen played as well as he did through that early part of the schedule considering the fact he was constantly under tons of pressure.
The line did improve later in the season when Johnny Gibson entered the starting lineup at right guard. And one other thing I think will help is that offensive line coach Kurt Anderson seems to have settled on his starting five — LT Colton Jackson; LG Hjalte Froholdt; C Frank Ragnow; RG Gibson; RT Brian Wallace. Naturally, that could change, but that group seems like the safe bet to be the one that starts against Florida A&M on Sept. 2. In preseason camp last fall, Anderson tried out at least 10 different first-team units before the season started. They are lightyears ahead of that in 2017.
Ragnow is one of the best offensive linemen in the country and should be a first-team All-America candidate. Froholdt struggled last season, but he was new to playing on the offensive line after switching from defensive tackle. He should be a lot better this season. Wallace and Gibson both entered the starting lineup as the 2016 season wore on, so with their experience, they should also be much improved.
Jackson is the most unknown at this point. He began last season as the starting right tackle but lost his job to Wallace after a couple of games. During media interviews in the spring, Jackson was open and honest about how difficult last season was for him. That sort of experience for a young player could have been disastrous, but it sounded like Jackson has handled it the right way.
“Of course you don’t want to get your spot taken,” Jackson said. “You’ve got to understand when somebody can do the job better than you, it’s a team thing. Brian stepped up and did better in spots that I couldn’t do. I took that time to get better at those spots and came forward into the spring.
“You just have got to go into it with a positive attitude. Of course on the front end, I was mad about it. Nobody wants their spot taken. You just have got to take it and learn. I was a redshirt freshman. I couldn’t be that mad about it. I just had to take it and learn from it.”
What are reasonable expectations for Arkansas football?
Q: As a fan, I tend to drink the Razorback juice and claim national title run every year. However, that really isn’t realistic. What are realistic expectations for this upcoming year and should fans be happy with those realistic expectations? — Casey
This seems to be a fairly popular topic this summer. It’s kind of a tough question because I definitely don’t want to dampen any enthusiasm you — or any other Razorbacks fan — may have for your favorite team. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wildly high expectations; that’s part of being a fan. People love Chicago Cubs fans because they were unreasonably optimistic about their World Series chances for decades — and then that crazy dedication eventually paid off in a big way.
I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with Arkansas fans wondering why their football program can’t be more like Oklahoma is now or what Nebraska was under Tom Osborne, with common denominators like having wildly passionate fan bases; being one of the only big sports franchises in a relatively small state; and having a smaller in-state talent pool but easy access to more fertile ground. Plus, the Razorbacks get the big paycheck each year that comes with being part of the SEC.
But the bottom line is that for whatever reason, Arkansas just hasn’t enjoyed that level of greatness throughout college football history, so it’s hard for a lot of people outside the state to believe the Razorbacks are capable of consistently being a national power. The Hogs also have to play in the SEC West. It is tremendously difficult to rise in prestige when you have to play Alabama, Auburn, LSU and even Texas A&M every single year.
None of that is to say that Arkansas football hasn’t been a very successful program throughout its history. The Associated Press’ Ralph Russo looked at every AP poll in history to create all-time rankings and put Arkansas at No. 21. That is more than respectable. But Ralph noted in his write-up that Arkansas only has one appearance in AP’s top-3 since 1978. It’s just been tough for the Hogs to get over the hump and go from being a good — or even sometimes very good — team to being an elite one.
To answer your original question (realistic expectations for this year), I think 7 or 8 wins is a reasonable expectation and you have every right to be upset if Arkansas falls short of that.
And Casey, please don’t take my answer to mean you shouldn’t be excited every single year about Arkansas football or you shouldn’t hold the program to the highest of standards. Like I said, that’s part of being a fan and part of the fun of sports — you never know when that passionate dedication is going to pay dividends!
Jason Kersey will answer reader questions about Arkansas football — or whatever else you want to talk about! — each Friday. To submit a question, email firstname.lastname@example.org or send a message to @jasonkersey on Twitter.