Spring practice does not begin for the Arkansas football team until March. We’re all still a good six weeks or so away from live-action football. And I’m not convinced we’re finished seeing all the coaching exits between now and then, either.
What we are finished seeing, for the most part, are player exits. Even other than graduates, the Razorbacks lost a few players off the potential 2017 roster. Guys such as Khalia Hackett, Tevin Beanum, Duwop Mitchell and Ricky Town won’t return. Freshmen will arrive in the summertime, too, independent of the freshmen who have already enrolled and will go through spring drills.
A majority of the roster is in place or close to it (assuming no crazy amount of current Class of 2017 commits change their mind on National Signing Day). Accordingly, we have a pretty good idea of just what each unit will bring to the table next season. Not a concrete idea. But a basis.
This is how I rank each positional unit on the Arkansas roster entering the spring. Note: These are based on Arkansas not losing any more players and getting firm signings from each of their current commits.
8. Special teams
If you thought Arkansas’ special teams from 2016 couldn’t get worse, just wait. Easily the best player off last season’s unit, punter Toby Baker is gone. By the end of the season, Baker’s No. 2 was the starting quarterback, despite there being another punter on the roster. The only returning kicker is one who lost his job to a walk-on last season. The return game is non-existent.
If the proposed 10th coach gets hired and focuses on this area, things could change. But make no mistake, this won’t be a strength — or close to it — next season.
The worst unit on the roster in 2016 proposes to put another member of its corps on the field in 2017. OK.
Honestly, it’s not the worst idea. The best player on the whole defense is a linebacker. The brightest freshman on defense last season is a linebacker. The surprise player of the defense last season is a linebacker. The move makes sense. But there is almost no experience and that counts those three (Dre Greenlaw — 1 1/2 seasons, De’Jon Harris — 8 full games and Randy Ramsey — 1 1/2 seasons). This is a group that could climb the rankings, though, if things pan out.
6. Defensive line
On paper, the defensive line is less intimidating than the linebackers are. There seems to be more upside potential, though, so they get the nod.
McTelvin Agim remains the most dangerous player on the defense, but coach Bret Bielema suggested he needs Agim to devote himself to the craft. Guys like Austin Capps and Briston Guidry could be SEC regulars, too. Bijhon Jackson is a rotation guy with loads of experience. There are things to like on paper, but after difficulties last season, no one is expecting a huge jump.
Here’s the thing about the secondary at Arkansas: The safeties are mediocre, at best. The corners are solid, if not better than that.
Ryan Pulley established himself as a legitimate shutdown type at cornerback as a sophomore and he’s back. Henre’ Toliver started the season very well and though he did slow down as the season went, he’s still the most physically gifted player back there. Kevin Richardson and Britto Tutt were supposed to be regulars in 2016, but injury wiped out their seasons.
Richardson may be the most important. If he can add just a little weight, Arkansas can afford to move him to safety and give fewer snaps to either Josh Liddell or Santos Ramirez, both of whom seem to have plateaued.
4. Wide receiver/tight end
Arkansas’ receivers are tricky. On one hand, the team may have an All-SEC player leading the wide receiving group. On the other hand, he’s never been a No. 1 and the Razorbacks have a grand total of 2 career catches behind him.
Jared Cornelius should see plenty of balls thrown his way from Austin Allen this season as he is the clear No. 1 wideout. Brandon Martin may usurp that role as the 4-star junior college product looks ready to make an immediate impact. Guys such as Jordan Jones, T.J. Hammonds (yes, he will be a wide receiver far more often than a running back) and Koilan Jackson seem like the next batch of underclassmen.
Tight end has loads of untapped potential. Jeremy Patton was supposed to be in Fayetteville already, but the No. 1 JUCO tight end in the country hasn’t made it. Yet, Austin Cantrell is firmly entrenched as the primary blocking tight end. Cheyenne O’Grady should get plenty of opportunity to be the No. 1 receiving one with Grayson Gunter out with injury this spring.
3. Offensive line
Yep. The O-linemen are this high. Not because I expect them to be great, mind you. But because, well, every other unit seems to have more questions than answers.
That isn’t to say this one doesn’t have questions, but its not as many. Frank Ragnow’s return kept this from being the second-to-last ranked group. He is the best center in the country. Johnny Gibson, Brian Wallace and Hjalte Froholdt are a year wiser, too, which can’t hurt. You would like to see two of the three — most likely Wallace and Froholdt — take a major step forward, though. If both do, this group could go from meh to pretty good.
A dreadful final third of the season kept Allen from garnering All-SEC attention. But for most of the season, the then-first-year starter deserved first-team acknowledgment.
Mostly it seemed like he hit a wall, not an uncommon outcome for a player with fewer than 15 career passes entering the season. Allen began to force the issue with his throws and, frankly, that got Arkansas beat against Missouri (although, yes, there were other things, too).
Still, Allen playing the way he did for about seven games last season points to a positive future. If his receivers can get open, Allen should repeat his good numbers from 2016 while still dropping his interception rate. That would be huge.
1. Running back
As easy as it was to put Arkansas special teams dead last, it was easier to put this group as No. 1.
Rawleigh Williams III led the SEC in rushing last season. Let me put it another way: A dude who broke his friggin’ neck in October of 2015— and it was naturally wondered whether he’d even play football again — led the (usullly) toughest conference in college football in yards rushing. Williams isn’t great at anything — he’s not an “A” in quickness, speed, strength, vision or any of it. But he’s a “B” at nearly all of it. He’s as well-rounded a back as there is in the SEC.
And he might see a lighter workload in 2017. Devwah Whaley simply got better and better as last season progressed. He did almost nothing those first few weeks before establishing himself as a playmaker and a true danger as Williams’ No. 2.
Big game Tuesday night
Arkansas basketball visits Nashville, Tenn., on Tuesday with a chance to further separate itself from the cannibalized middle of the SEC.
A Razorbacks win against Vanderbilt will allow Arkansas to keep pace with the best of the league; a best that does not include Kentucky, which is clearly the SEC’s class. A win also allows Arkansas to easily hold on to its current status as an NCAA tournament team.
A loss against the Commodores won’t be embarrassing — Vanderbilt is decent and teams don’t just go into Dores Country and come out with wins in basketball. But a loss would sting, as Arkansas is a team that needs to rack up as many wins as possible because a crappy SEC won’t allow it to have that single showcase-type win the committee seeks.
Tip is at 7:30 p.m. on the SEC Network.