FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Welcome to SEC Country’s Arkansas Razorbacks football mailbag with beat writer Jason Kersey. In this edition, we discuss the Hogs’ special teams units, quarterback Austin Allen and more.
Arkansas’ special teams
Q: Where do you see Arkansas’ special teams heading into fall camp? — Christian
A: Special teams have been a pretty big liability for the Razorbacks the last couple of seasons and I’m not sure there is much reason to think those units will be much better in 2017. The Hogs still don’t have a special teams coordinator and lost the best special teams player they had a year ago in punter Toby Baker.
Kicker Cole Hedlund is entering his junior season, so my guess would be that this is his last shot. He struggled as a freshman and then again as a sophomore before losing the placekicking job midway through the season. In his career, Hedlund has made 14 of 22 field goal attempts with a long of 45 yards.
Walk-on Blake Mazza, a true freshman, might also be in the mix for a couple of roles.
It’s anybody’s guess right now as to who will end up returning kicks and punts. Those units have also been subpar the last couple years.
It sure sounds like coach Bret Bielema will hire a special teams coordinator in January when NCAA rules change and he is able to add a 10th assistant coach to his staff. But until then, the Hogs will try to make it through another season with those duties split between several assistants.
Is Austin Allen the SEC’s best QB?
Q: Will Austin Allen finish the season as top QB in SEC? — Joey
A: This has been a pretty hot topic throughout the SEC media world during his offseason. Who is the SEC’s best quarterback? Austin Allen certainly has a case to make.
He led the league in passing yardage and was second in passing touchdowns last season. He showed flashes of brilliance and his gutsy fourth-quarter performance last September at TCU rightly earned him praise.
But is he the best in the league? Many say yes, but I say no. At this point, I see no reason to anoint anyone as the SEC’s best quarterback who isn’t named Jalen Hurts. I like Mississippi State sophomore Nick Fitzgerald a lot, too. I’m not ready to put Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham in the conversation just yet. Not until he plays a game for the Tigers.
I would probably put Allen as the second best in the SEC for now, but he definitely could end up being the best by the end of the season.
Does Arkansas have a lower ceiling than fans realize?
Q: Being in a power vacuum with arguably the greatest dynasty in college football history creates inflated expectations in a more difficult environment. In the current landscape of the conference, specifically the division, is there a lower ceiling for a program like Arkansas than usual that fans fail to recognize? At what point should fans be happy with the results in these circumstances? — Mike
A: Things definitely are not easy for Arkansas in the SEC West — and they will stay difficult for the foreseeable future. At least until Nick Saban retires. But even after that happens, Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Texas A&M will probably still have recruiting advantages that Arkansas may never have.
That’s not to say the Razorbacks can’t win. They have won in the Saban era. Bobby Petrino won 21 games in his final two seasons and his 2011 team finished ranked No. 5 in the country. Of course, that was the same year that Alabama and LSU played each other for the national championship.
That is probably what is most frustrating for Razorbacks fans. At the time of Petrino’s motorcycle crash, Arkansas appeared to be on the upswing and getting close to entering the SEC West’s upper echelon. That was all set back after Petrino’s departure, and Bielema hasn’t been able to get the program back to that point yet.
If Arkansas can show some progress this season, then maybe a couple bigger recruits start taking a closer look at the Hogs. That would be a good start.
I answered a similar question to this a couple of weeks ago and I stand by this — there is absolutely nothing wrong with Arkansas fans holding their football program to high standards. The Razorbacks have been a successful program through history and fans have every right to be prideful and expect great things. But until the Hogs start showing signs of getting back to 2010 and 2011 levels of success, I would say fans should at least be patient. The SEC West is brutal and it’s really hard for a program to make a jump in it.
Arkansas assistant coaches
Q: Turnover has been common on Bret’s Arkansas staff. Which coaches are most likely not here next season for whatever reason (good or bad)? — Jamie
A: That’s a pretty tough question to answer just as fall camp is starting, but I’ll do my best! There was some speculation that linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves might not return in 2017, but instead Bielema added Chad Walker as outside linebackers coach and gave Hargreaves the inside guys. Considering the lack of depth at linebacker — a problem that has existed for the last couple years — I would imagine that unit needs to be better this season. If it isn’t, Hargreaves could be someone who isn’t back in 2018.
As has been noted many times, the Arkansas offensive line struggled last season. That was very uncharacteristic for the Razorbacks and for a Bielema-coached team. But, it was Kurt Anderson’s first season as O-line coach and the group improved as the season progressed.
Bielema has praised Anderson several times in the last year and seems to really like the job he’s doing. The expectation is that the Arkansas offensive line will be better in 2017. If it isn’t, Anderson will probably be the subject of some speculation.
To be more positive for a moment, if the Arkansas defense makes a big jump in 2017, I would expect that defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads might pop up as a head coaching candidate. He was fired after his seven-year run at Iowa State, but his time there included some big successes and frankly, that is one of the most difficult Power 5 jobs there is.
Rhoads has said before that he wants to be a head coach again, and a great performance as Arkansas’ defensive coordinator could create that opportunity for him.