FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The Arkansas Razorbacks will open spring football practices on Tuesday, March 28 with a new defensive coordinator, two new position coaches and a good amount of questions stemming from the team’s disappointment last season.
Here is a quick look at 4 story lines to watch this spring as Bret Bielema prepares for his fifth season as the Hogs’ head coach:
The 3-4 switch
This “story line” encompasses the entire defense, which was obviously a major problem for the Razorbacks in 2016. The Hogs’ defense was historically bad and it ultimately cost defensive coordinator Robb Smith his job.
Consequently, Bielema decided to change his defense to a base 3-4 scheme — something we knew even before Smith’s departure — and promoted Paul Rhoads to make it happen.
Rhoads is an accomplished, widely respected coach, but this remains a pretty tall task. The Hogs must replace several key defensive linemen while also introducing their returning defenders to a new system. Arkansas still has a troubling lack of depth at linebacker.
Defensive line coach John Scott Jr. and outside linebackers coach Chad Walker will spend the spring becoming acclimated to their new jobs and their players while also helping the Hogs install the new system.
Nothing will determine Arkansas’ success — or lack thereof — in 2017 more than the performance of the defense.
The backup QB battle
Arkansas returns senior quarterback Austin Allen in 2017, but who’s next?
The winner of the Razorbacks’ backup quarterback battle will become Allen’s heir apparent in 2018. That battle will — in all likelihood — come down to sophomore Ty Storey and redshirt freshman Cole Kelley.
Storey served as Allen’s backup last season, but Kelley — even as a true freshman — pushed Storey during fall camp. There is a lot of buzz coming out of the program about Kelley, a lightly recruited 3-star prospect from Lafayette, La., with big size and a powerful arm.
But don’t sleep on Storey — a Charleston, Ark., native who was one of the top pro-style quarterbacks in the 2015 recruiting class.
Who will step up at receiver?
Arkansas returns Jared Cornelius but loses reliable wideouts Drew Morgan and Keon Hatcher, as well as star tight end Jeremy Sprinkle. The Hogs added two junior college wideouts who are already on campus and will likely be instant contributors.
Another guy to keep an eye on is redshirt freshman Jordan Jones, a Smackover, Ark., native who turned a lot of heads last fall on the scout team.
Offensive line was a big problem for much of last season but seemed to improve as the season progressed and first-year O-line coach Kurt Anderson tinkered with his lineup.
Entering Year 2, there will be an expectation for major improvement.
The Hogs must replace left tackle and mainstay Dan Skipper in 2017. The battle to replace Skipper will be vitally important.
But speaking to reporters last week, Bielema hinted that some of the returning starters may not be so safe.
Allen took a beating last year, a fact that may have contributed to the way his production fell off as the season progressed.
The first-team offensive line unit could change with each practice this spring and possibly even into fall camp.