FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — One area that Arkansas football absolutely must improve in 2016 is its special teams.
The Razorbacks had their worst field goal percentage in nearly a decade, with five of their attempts being blocked. Arkansas finished ranked 79th in the country in kickoff return average; the team failed to return a punt for a touchdown for the fourth straight season.
In this — the ninth and final chapter in SEC Country’s look at Arkansas position groups entering the 2016 season — we wrap things up with a glance at the Razorbacks special teams.
Names you need to know
Toby Baker (redshirt senior), Eric Hawkins (redshirt senior), Adam McFain (redshirt senior), DJ Dean (senior), Dominique Reed (senior), Jared Cornelius (junior), Cole Hedlund (redshirt sophomore), Lane Saling (redshirt sophomore), *T.J. Hammonds (true freshman), *Jordan Jones (true freshman)
* — Indicates a 2016 newcomer
It isn’t hyperbole to say that if Arkansas does not get more out of its field goal kicking unit this season, it probably will be impossible for the Razorbacks to match last year’s win total.
Cole Hedlund’s 60 percent field goal percentage last year was the worst by a primary Arkansas kicker since 2006. When Mississippi State blocked his 29-yard attempt with 38 seconds left last November, it meant a 51-50 loss that snapped a four-game Razorbacks winning streak.
Hedlund also missed field goal attempts in losses to Toledo and Texas Tech last season. He made only one attempt from longer than 27 yards.
This certainly was not what Razorbacks coaches thought they were getting when they signed Hedlund in 2014. He was the fourth-best kicker in his class, according to Kohl’s Kicking Camps rankings.
And although Hedlund received high praise throughout spring practices for his improvement, he missed four attempts in the April spring game.
Of course, his competition for the field goal job hasn’t been much better. Adam McFain and Lane Saling missed two attempts each in the spring game.
To Hedlund’s credit, he made all 58 of his extra-point attempts in 2015. But Arkansas coaches are going to need to see more out of him if Hedlund is going to keep his job this year.
At punter, the Razorbacks return senior Toby Baker, who averaged 41.2 yards last season, with six of his punts going for 50 yards or more. By all accounts, Baker had a nice spring and should improve on those numbers as a senior.
Arkansas will work to get more out of its return game this season, too. The Razorbacks haven’t returned a punt for a touchdown since Joe Adams brought back four punts for scores during the 2011 season.
Still, there’s reason for optimism when it comes to punt returning. Jared Cornelius and DJ Dean each returned seven punts last season and averaged an identical 13.3 yards, and both of those guys are back in 2016.
The Razorbacks’ top two kick returners from 2015 — Eric Hawkins and Dominique Reed — are both back as well. Considering Arkansas barely cracked the top 80 in that category last season and has returned just one kickoff for a touchdown in Bret Bielema’s three seasons, Hogs coaches might look elsewhere.
Bielema said during the spring that talented incoming freshmen T.J. Hammonds and Jordan Jones — from Little Rock, Ark., and Smackover, Ark., respectively — both could contribute as kick returners this season.
All told, these special teams units could make or break Arkansas’ 2016 season.