OVERVIEW: Coach Bobby Petrino has one of the best offensive minds in college football, and he'll use a variety of looks within his pro-style scheme. He generally favors a three-receiver set and has a deep corps of receivers - maybe the nation's deepest. But he also has a new starting quarterback. On the other hand, he has one of the nation's best tailbacks. But that tailback will be running behind a rebuilt line that is the team's biggest question.
AN INSIDE LOOK
THE LINGERING QUESTION: How good will QB Tyler Wilson be? In his lone stint of extended playing time last season, Wilson looked quite good against Auburn. If he plays that well every week this season, the Hogs will be in great shape. One big plus: He has TB Knile Davis behind him, so Wilson does not have to be the focal point of the offense.
THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO: Wilson thrives behind a line that jells quickly, and he and Davis form a devastating 1-2 punch. The defense, while not dominating, does just enough, making some strides against the run. The Hogs lose once but still win the SEC West - and the league title. They advance to a BCS bowl for the second season in a row.
THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO: Wilson is under constant pressure because the line struggles; the rebuilt line's play also hampers Davis. The offense isn't as productive as expected and too much pressure is placed on the defense. After a 3-0 start, the Hogs lose two in a row, then lose twice more later in the season to go 8-4, which gets them a bid to the Cotton Bowl.
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: Watch the rush-defense numbers. If Arkansas wants to win the SEC West, it cannot allow 162.6 rushing yards per game. When you consider that yards lost on sacks count as rushing yards in college football and that Arkansas had 37 sacks last season, that 162.6 looks even worse.
BACKFIELD: TB Knile Davis is the Hogs' best player and a threat to run for 1,500 yards even if he is running behind a rebuilt line. He ran for 1,322 yards and 13 TDs last season despite not becoming the feature back until Game 5. His yardage total was the fourth-highest single-season figure in school history. He had six 100-yard games and averaged 6.5 yards per carry, the most of any back nationally with at least 200 carries. He also is an effective receiver. Speedy Dennis Johnson and physical Ronnie Wingo are competent backups. Wingo is an excellent receiver. It will be interesting to see how Petrino tweaks his offense this season, given that he has a proven tailback but a new quarterback. That quarterback will be Tyler Wilson, a junior who has played in 13 career games. He has attempted 109 passes, with seven TDs and seven interceptions, for 740 yards. The bulk of his stats came in one game last season, when he replaced an injured Ryan Mallett in the first half of what would be a 22-point loss to Auburn. Wilson was 25-of-34 for 332 yards, four TDs and two picks in that outing. His arm isn't as strong as Mallett's, but few are. Wilson can make the needed throws, though, and will be working with one of the best quarterback gurus in the nation in Petrino.
RECEIVERS: The Hogs have an embarrassment of riches here. Three receivers who started at least five games return, as does Joe Adams, who might be the best receiver on the roster. The top four receivers are back - Adams, Greg Childs, Cobi Hamilton and Janarius Wright - and that quartet combined for 170 receptions for 2,890 yards and 23 TDs even though Childs missed six games with a knee injury. All four are legit deep threats and all but Childs caught a pass covering at least 85 yards last season. The Hogs will miss TE D.J. Williams, who actually led them in receptions with 54. Williams also was a solid blocker. Chris Gragg, who caught four passes last season, and Colton Miles-Nash will vie for the starting job. Miles-Nash played tight end in 2009, moved to defensive end last season, then moved back to tight end in the offseason. Don't expect big receiving numbers from either this season, but their blocking will be vital.
LINE: This is an area of concern, especially the tackles. The Hogs don't designate "left" and "right" tackles and instead flip them depending on the formation and play call. Regardless, they could be in trouble at the position. Both starters from last season are gone; so is Anthony Oden, a likely starter who was booted by Petrino in mid-July after his second DUI arrest in a year. Touted true freshman Brey Cook enrolled early and went through spring drills, and looks as if he will be a starter. JC transfer Jason Peacock, another early enrollee, and senior Grant Freeman, who has started twice in his career, are the other possible starters. Depth is a huge problem at the position. The interior is more settled. C Travis Swanson and G Alvin Bailey garnered some freshman All-America mention last season, and the other starting guard will be senior Grant Cook. Depth is a problem inside, too, because of the transfer of G/C Seth Oxner, who will spend his final season at Division II Arkansas-Monticello.
OVERVIEW: Arkansas has become incrementally better on defense under coordinator Willy Robinson, but more improvement is needed. The rush defense was a sore spot last season, when mobile quarterbacks really hurt Arkansas. The pass defense was noticeably better, though, and one reason was an aggressive pass rush. Robinson isn't afraid to blitz, one reason the Hogs had 37 sacks last season.
LINE: E Jake Bequette is the standout here, and he should contend for All-SEC honors. He had seven sacks last season and holds the edge against the run. The other end will be Tenarius Wright, who had six sacks as a reserve last season. Both starting tackles return and depth looks good, too. Arkansas looks as if it will have an effective four-man rotation with Byran Jones, DeQuinta Jones (no relation to Byran), Alfred Davis and JC transfer Robert Thomas. Thomas enrolled in time for spring practice and put himself squarely in the mix for playing time. While the talent appears to be on hand, the Hogs need to get more physical in the middle.
LINEBACKERS: MLB Jerry Franklin is headed into his fourth season as a starter and should contend for All-America honors. He has made 281 tackles in his career; he had a career-high 100 last season, including 13 tackles for loss. Franklin had three games with double-digit tackles last season, including 20 stops against Mississippi State. The other returning starter at the position is senior Jerico Nelson, who plays a hybrid outside 'backer/safety role. He's a bit on the small side but can run and will be a four-year starter for the Hogs. The new starter is junior Terrell Williams, who was solid (42 tackles) in a reserve role last season. Coaches are high on redshirt freshman Braylon Mitchell, who has good speed for a 232-pounder. Ross Rasner is another backup who will see time.
SECONDARY: FS Tramain Thomas is the leader of this unit. He was third on the team with 83 tackles and added four picks and five pass breakups. He was a second-team all-league choice last season. His running mate at safety is expected to be sophomore Eric Bennett, who will have to hold off senior Elton Ford for the starting job. The starting corners should be some mix of senior Isaac Madison, junior Darius Winston and sophomore Jerry Mitchell, who has the potential to be a future all-league guy. This was not a playmaking group last season, as the Hogs had just 11 interceptions. (The flipside: They allowed only 13 touchdown passes.) Of the top three corners, only Winston (with one) had an interception last season. Winston is a former five-star recruit who hasn't come close to living up to the high school hype.
This should one of the best special teams units in the SEC - and the nation. P Dylan Breeding averaged 42.5 yards per attempt and K Zach Hocker was 16-of-19, including 7-of-9 from at least 40 yards. Adams is an excellent punt returner, while Johnson - who missed all but two games last season with what was termed a bowel injury - is the SEC's active leader in career kickoff-return yards with 2,014. The punt coverage was good last season, but coaches need to find a way to shore up the kickoff coverage; the Hogs allowed 25.6 yards per return last season, including a TD.
THE RECRUITING SIDE
Average national ranking past five years: 31st
Buzz: Because so many SEC programs had higher-ranked classes, Arkansas' group got little recognition. But the reality is that the Hogs signed a solid class. Give credit to the Arkansas staff, which is doing a good job right now of taking three-star prospects and developing them into solid SEC players. The jewels of this particular group are four-star QB Brandon Allen, four-star OT Brey Cook and three-star G Mitch Smothers. Allen has a lively arm and is known for his pinpoint accuracy. He could be a nice player to build the offense around in coming seasons. - KEITH NIEBUHR
Brey Cook is a big-time recruit at a position of need, and if he doesn't start, he'll still play a lot. The bet here is that he will be a starter, and life can be tough on a true freshman lineman in the SEC.
Wilson and the rebuilt offensive line will have time to jell and get the kinks out early in the season; the first three games are eminently winnable (Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy). But then comes a season-defining stretch: back-to-back-to-back games against Alabama (road), Texas A&M (neutral site) and Auburn (home). The Hogs also have November games against South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi State and LSU, with all but the LSU game at home.
Arkansas went 10-3 last season, the first time it had reached double digits in wins since 2006, and the last time the Hogs had back-to-back 10 win seasons was 1998-99. As long as the line comes around, the offense is going to score points. It's up to Wilson if the Hogs' average point total is in the low 30s or high 30s. The defense won't be confused with those at Alabama and LSU - both of whom the Hogs play on the road. But the combination of Davis and a deep receiving corps will put a lot of pressure on opposing defenses, and the Hogs' special teams could decide a game, as well. At the least, this looks like a nine-win team. It's not a stretch to say the Sept. 24 game at Alabama will determine how the season will go.
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