FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Few coaches in college football have had a rougher go of things in the 2017 season than Arkansas’ Bret Bielema.
The Razorbacks have not had the year most projected. Most. The South Carolina game ended in massive disappointment and dejection. Austin Allen’s injury dampens his legacy. Alabama never gave Arkansas a chance. TCU put them away with a flurry in the late rounds. Texas A&M broke their heart.
If it could have gone wrong on the field this season, within reason, it has. The 2017 year is not worst-case-scenario, but it’s not far off.
All that is said in preface to this:
More people should have seen it coming. The massive losses sustained at wide receiver, the absence of an NFL tight end, the lack of depth and loss on the defensive line, the struggles at linebacker — these were never going to be quickly fixed. And never mind the offensive line and it’s perpetual state of chaos.
Things are not all, bad, though. Anyone looking for hope for the future of Arkansas football can find it and it doesn’t take a deep dive to do so.
In fact, let’s do it. It’s the midway point of the football season. Everything has enough of a sample size for a statistical look and we have all seen enough for an eye-test analysis of what Arkansas football and what it is not.
- De’Jon Harris, inside linebacker, sophomore
The potential was there a year ago with Harris. It has blossomed in 2017, though. He has been getting regular snaps for about a calendar year having seen more time after Dre Greenlaw was lost for the season at last year’s midway point. Linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves did the smart thing long-term with Harris, too, not throwing him completely into the mix. Harris wasn’t ready. But he logged time in preparation for this season. Now he leads the team by double-digits in tackles with 55. Some All-SEC consideration will be warranted going into 2018.
- Seeing the future at quarterback
Cole Kelley’s trial-by-fire had mixed, mostly negative, results. But it did get him on-the-field time in the SEC. There are no more firsts for him to go through now that his first action and his first start and his first game against Alabama are over. Nothing is more intimidating than that defense. And while I saw little to suggest he was going to be a future star (“not terrible” is not the same thing as “going to be good”), none of us saw it in Brandon Allen his freshman year in his first career start against Alabama, either. It could happen.
- Offensive line stinks
The notion that last year’s problems would be fixed this year is silly. It was blind thinking. If something is crummy to begin with and it all returns the next season, won’t it still be crummy? Yes is the answer. And that’s what’s transpired. Arkansas’ offensive line is a disaster. And that’s with the best offensive lineman in the country playing on it. Blame whatever you want — offensive line coach Kurt Anderson, Bielema, the players, the recruiting – it’s a bit of all of it. This is, by far, the most embarrassing shame of the last season-and-a-half of Arkansas football.
- Defensive line lacks playmakers
McTelvin Agim, we all think, is a stud. We just haven’t found out for sure yet. He regularly gets double-teamed, which makes sense. Teams are afraid of him. But things are exacerbated with Arkansas’ one-fewer defensive lineman to soak up a blocker. The move to the 3-4 has not done Agim favors individually. Plus, the guys on the line – like Bijhon Jackson, TJ Smith, Austin Capps – have not made much of an impact. If they’re not playmakers, teams needn’t focus on them and can shift everything to ensuring Agim gets blocked instead. Arkansas is 123rd in the nation in tackles for-loss. There are 130 teams in FBS. Figure it out
- Austin Allen’s injury
The man took too many shots in his season-and-a-half as starter. It finally got to him against South Carolina. He deserved better.
This team has had a tendency to phone things in when the going gets tough the last two years. The q-word has been thrown about and it isn’t completely unfair.
- Bielema’s future
When the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had the story that Bielema’s buyout total was lower than the $15 million most thought, it sent shockwaves. Most of them behind the scenes. It was an ugly week in the Arkansas athletic department. Bielema is about the only one keeping a level head, to which he deserves credit.
Bielema knows Arkansas needs to win football games. It’s that basic. If it happens, the rest of the mess disappears on its own. Sure, there would be problems, issues, but winning football games is all that matters. Cures all ills.
With Auburn, also in a state of tension, visiting this weekend, Arkansas could go a long way in restoring some of its sheen by pulling an upset.
The question is whether they can even do that anymore.