As Arkansas breaks in first-year starter Austin Allen at quarterback, the junior will have the benefit of throwing to a wealth of experienced and proven big-play wide receivers.
The 2016 Razorbacks feature five receivers with at least six career starts. Seniors Keon Hatcher (558 yards in 2014), Drew Morgan (843 in ’15) and Dominique Reed (535 yards in ’15) have all produced productive seasons during their time in Fayetteville.
But several questions remain surrounding the rest of the offense, which could present more difficult circumstances if the production of several departed standouts can’t be duplicated.
As part of a nine-part series, SEC Country is breaking down the Arkansas position groups entering the 2016 season. Here’s a look at the receivers.
Names you need to know
Keon Hatcher (redshirt senior), Cody Hollister (senior), Drew Morgan (senior), Dominique Reed (senior), Jared Cornelius (junior).
The receiving corps could be the Razorbacks best offensive position group if the key players avoid injury – a major problem last season.
Hatcher was off to a fantastic start in 2015, hauling in 13 passes for 198 yards and two touchdowns before a foot injury ended his season after two games.
Morgan thrived with Hatcher sidelined, scoring 10 touchdowns and registering three games with at least 100 yards receiving. At one point during last season, he made his way onto the Biletnikoff Award Watch List, an award given to the nation’s top receiver. He also emerged as a leader for the Razorbacks and made several memorable plays, including the game-winning touchdown against Auburn.
Reed came on strong in 2015, his first season at Arkansas after transferring from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College, catching 26 passes for 526 yards and six touchdowns in the final nine games. The 6-foot-3, 175-pound senior is widely considered one of the fastest players in the Southeastern Conference.
Like Hatcher, Hollister missed the majority of last season with a foot injury while Cornelius was sidelined four games with a broken arm.
Among the younger receivers, Deon Stewart and La’Michael Pettway appear to be the most likely candidates to make an impact. Both redshirted as freshman last season.
Tight end Jeremy Sprinkle is also expected to have an impact in the passing game after leading all SEC tight ends with six receiving touchdowns last season.
If health isn’t an issue in 2016, the lack of experience throughout the rest of the offense becomes the primary obstacle to success among the receivers.
The Arkansas coaching staff is apparently high on Austin Allen, naming him the starter in April. But he has big shoes to fill replacing his older brother Brandon, who started 38 games in the last four seasons and threw for 3,440 yards and 30 touchdowns in 2015 as a senior.
Brandon Allen’s experience, accuracy and exceptional decision-making helped the receivers thrive. It remains to be seen if the younger Allen can produce similar results.
The Razorbacks also are replacing star running back Alex Collins. During his three seasons in Fayetteville, Collins became one of the most accomplished players in school history. He rushed for a career-high 1,577 yards and 20 touchdowns last season.
The future of the running game is further clouded by the departures of three starting offensive lineman and tight end Hunter Henry, a talented blocker.
So unlike recent years, Arkansas will enter the upcoming season not knowing if it has a running game capable of forcing defenses to play man-to-man coverage against receivers as they load up against the run.
Here’s an example from last season’s game at Tennessee showing how much the passing attack benefited from the threat of the run with Collins and an experienced offense line.
On the first offensive play of the game, the Volunteers clearly show their intent is on stopping Collins. The play begins with all 11 defenders within 9 yards of the line of scrimmage.
The Razorbacks go with a play-action pass, and after Brandon Allen fakes the handoff to Collins, eight defenders collapse around the line of scrimmage.
As a result, all three Arkansas receivers have man-to-man matchups running downfield — an ideal situation for a player like Morgan, who in this case is wide open on an out route and gains 13 yards.
While this group has the experience and proven capability to make plays, the offense is predicated on using the threat of the run to establish the pass. So before expectations can be set for the receivers in 2016, the rest of the offense must show it has the ability to effectively execute the Razorbacks’ scheme.
Other positions we’ve reviewed: