Arkansas prides itself on its ability to run the ball. The running game is what the Hogs’ pro-style offense has thrived on since Bret Bielema’s arrival four years ago.
It’s not only their philosophy but also an expected mentality. Gritty. Tough. Smash-mouth.
The Hogs were 5-0 when they rushed for at least 200 yards in 2016. Conversely, the Razorbacks were 2-6 when they failed to reach that mark and 0-5 in SEC games.
That sort of reliance on the running game is what makes the 2016 season, in which Arkansas finished 7-6, so concerning. The Razorbacks experienced a major drop-off in production from the ground game. They set low marks by a wide margin in yards per carry (4.1), yards per game (164.2) and total yards (2,135) during the Bielema era.
The Hogs’ previous three teams averaged at least 5 yards per carry, 197 yards per game and never totaled less than 2,500 in a season.
A slightly more difficult schedule may have skewed those stats some this season, but likely not by much. Arkansas faced six teams ranked among the top 50 in run defense during the 2016 season. However, the Hogs played six others that finished 70th or worse nationally and racked up 353 yards on FCS foe Alcorn State.
Arkansas also faced six top 50 run defenses and had a huge day against a FCS team during the 2015 season. In 2014, nine opponents ranked in the top 70. Bielema’s first season, in 2013, saw the Hogs play eight teams that ranked no worse than 52nd versus the run. Those stats suggest there isn’t much difference between what the Razorbacks saw this season and the previous three.
Holes in the offensive line are likely the greatest culprit for the drop-off. The Razorbacks replaced three starters on the unit from the 2015 season. Those replacements were less than stellar and a perceived lack of depth made things more difficult.
The good news is several players gained valuable experience and four starters are returning next season. Despite the offensive line’s overall struggles, center Frank Ragnow was arguably the best player on the team. He will once again anchor the line as he returns for his senior season. Whether the gained experience of those around him will lead to improved play remains to be seen.
Where Arkansas doesn’t need to worry is at running back. Rawleigh Williams III led the SEC in rushing yards as a sophomore in 2016 and Devwah Whaley showed flashes of how special he can be during his freshman season.
Fixing this problem is on the offensive line, which clearly did not meet expectations throughout a mostly disappointing season.