FAYETTEVILLE — Eight months into 2017 the Arkansas Razorbacks say they’ve been incessantly inspired to eradicate the hangover still tasting vile from the November and December sorry swan songs of 2016.
“I feel like after those losses everybody on the team doesn’t want to feel that no more,” Arkansas sophomore defensive end McTelvin “Sosa” Agim and former 5-star prospect of Hope High School said. “That’s really been our motivation since January.”
All that were asked, especially the ones asked often like senior leaders Austin Allen and Frank Ragnow, the starting quarterback and All-American candidate center, and defensive captains Kevin Richardson and Santos Ramirez, have said various versions from the winter offseason on what Agim said after practice on Aug. 9.
But until they play some games, the Aug. 31 season-opener against Florida A&M in Little Rock and the next two presumably tougher ones, TCU, Sept. 9 in Fayetteville and after their lone bye weekend, the SEC opener Sept. 23 against Texas A&M at the Dallas Cowboys AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, nothing they can say or do can erase the stigma ending what could have been a 9-4 season at 7-6. They sagged to 7-6 because their last two games they lost 24-7 and 24-0 halftime leads in 28-24 and 35-24 losses in Columbia, Mo. to SEC bottom-feeder Missouri and at the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, N.C. to Virginia Tech.
As Arkansas’ on paper most formidable nonconference foe, TCU, edged 41-38 by Allen’s 5-yard touchdown run in a wild double overtime game last season at the Horned Frogs’ Amon Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, and especially the Texas A&M Aggies, 5-0 over Arkansas since leaving the Big 12 to join the SEC West in 2012, provide the early games most pivotal to Razorbacks’ fans truly believing in their Razorbacks again.
Of course as upset losses in Little Rock in 2015 to Toledo and in 2012 to Louisiana-Monroe, a loss preceding all these Razorbacks seniors but nonetheless remembered with a wince by all the current Razorbacks who grew up in Arkansas, Arkansas first must dispatch Florida A&M or suffer a 2017 opening nightmare dwarfing the 2016
Presumably off last year’s finish the Razorbacks will have their minds sufficiently tending to business on the lower division (FCS) Rattlers, 4-7 last year and 70-3 and 49-10 losers to Miami and Coastal Carolina.
But in this, the August preseason all the Razorbacks can do is keep working and preparing like they say they have since returning in January for the 2017 spring semester through spring practice and summer conditioning workouts.
Arkansas Coach Bret Bielema said he even wrote a letter to his team praising their spring and summer efforts on the field and off before they began preseason drills on July 27.
And going into their second full-scale August scrimmage, Bielema said, “I really like where our team’s at. They’ve continued to grow and progress.”
Arkansas’ biggest offensive problem last season was a young, offensive line starting too many not ready for prime time players now the better for their experience, Bielema, offensive coordinator Dan Enos and offensive line coach Kurt Anderson concur.
“A night and day difference,” Enos said.
So with senior Preseason first-team All-SEC Ragnow anchoring at center, the staff believes that guards Hjalte Froholdt and Dumas’ Johnny Gibson and tackles Colton Jackson of Conway and Brian Wallace, all rookie starters last season and in Froholdt’s case, a Danish defensive lineman brand new to the offensive line with just one spring at guard behind him before he started 13 games.
Other than graduated 2016 left tackle Dan Skipper, the Razorbacks lost nobody from last year’s line and now have enough second-team depth via versatile linemen Jake Raulerson, Zach Rogers and Jalen Merrick possibly to redshirt three offensive linemen while returning everyone for 2017.
So Bielema and Enos expect better run-blocking on the goal-line and short-yardage situations bedeviling Arkansas last year and better pass protection after Allen was served up too often as sacked lunch last year.
Still, last year’s line must have done something right for Allen to lead the SEC (3,430 yards and 25 touchdowns) in passing.
And running back Rawleigh Williams, permanently retired from football last spring by his second major neck injury, led the SEC in regular-season rushing.
Sophomore Devwah Whaley, 602 yards on 110 carries spelling Rawleigh Williams last season, assumed the No. 1 role when Rawleigh was briefly immobilized and carted off the field the final spring practice.
Whaley did so over most of the summer with backups he didn’t have last spring. Running back David Williams arrived as a graduate student transfer from South Carolina with SEC experience and one season left to utilize it at Arkansas while freshman speedster running back Chase Hayden and freshman receiver Koilan Jackson, the son of former Oklahoma All-American and former NFL star and former Razorbacks broadcaster Keith Jackson, were the big-play stars of Arkansas’ first August scrimmage.
Bielema could cringe with the 2016 Razorbacks graduating tight end Jeremy Sprinkle to the NFL draft and receivers Drew Morgan, Keon Hatcher and Cody Hollister to NFL free agency and also graduating speedster Dominique Reed.
However he appears deeper than ever in tight ends led by massive blocker Austin Cantrell of Roland, Okla., pass-catcher Cheyenne O’Grady of Fayetteville and all-round type tight ends Grayson Gunter, Jack Kraus and Dumas’ Will Gragg and nationally top junior college transfer tight end Jeremy Patton.
Bielema has fingers crossed that his lone returning receiver of consequence last season, senior Jared Cornelius, has healed from the back injury sidelining him from the 105-man roster until the roster expansion with the Aug. 21 start of fall semester classes.
However fifth-receivers coach Michael Smith insists he has his “most talented” group ever led by third-year sophomore returnees Deon Stewart and La’Michael Pettway, redshirt freshman deep-ball threat Jordan Jones of Smackover, junior college transfers Jonathan Nance,Brandon Martin and Fordyce native Gary Cross and true freshmen Koilan Jackson and Cabot’s Jarrod Barnes.
“It’s a well-oiled machine,” defensive end Agim said of the offense he practices against daily.
Last year’s defense was too often more boiled than well-oiled.
An inability to stop the run, particularly against running quarterbacks, led Bielema to change the defensive base from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and change defensive coordinators elevating Paul Rhoads, the former Iowa State head coach and last year strictly the secondary’s coach, to coordinator while continuing to coach the secondary.
Rhoads’ final Iowa State team considerably improved its defensive stats switching from the 4-3 to the 3-4 and he believes Arkansas will, too.
“One of our deficiencies last year was defending against the quarterback run game and we feel the 3-4 gives us a better opportunity to defend that,” Rhoads said.
Obviously it would help if their best linebacker, junior 2-year starting inside weakside ‘backer Dre Greenlaw, fully recovers from twice breaking his foot in 2016. Greenlaw missed spring ball and did not do much heavy practice work until mid-August.
However with Greenlaw limited, redshirt freshman Grant Morgan of Greenwood established himself as a go-to reserve both at the weakside Will and Mike middle linebacker that starts sophomore De’Jon “Scoota” Harris.
Senior Randy Ramsey, one of those athletic ‘tweeners ideal for an 3-4 outside linebacker but undersized as a traditional defensive end and another senior ‘tweener, Karl Roesler, hold forth at the outside linebackers. Expect junior college transfer Gabe Richardson to press Roesler.
Playing only three defensive linemen instead of four automatically increases big man depth, Rhoads said. They like their starters with predicted for stardom out of high school Agim at end and senior Bijhon Jackson of El Dorado at nose guard backed by Star City’s Austin Capps with sophomore T.J. Smith emerged at the other end.
Arkansas’ pass defense, struggling in 2015 but better than its rushing defense in 2016, returns six quality first-teamers in safeties Santos Ramirez, De’Andre Coley and Pine Bluff Dollarway’s Josh Liddell and cornerbacks Ryan Pulley, one of the SEC’s best, Henre Toliver and Kevin Richardson. Jacksonville’s Richardson, missed sorely when an opening game injury shelved him the next 12 games, not only is the top reserve corner but starts if the Hogs start with a nickel back. Richardson also can play safety.
Questionable feet creates uncertainty if the kicking game is in good hands.
Third-year sophomore Blake Johnson only punted twice behind graduated senior Toby Baker last year.
Highly touted out of high school but surpassed by a walk-on when he redshirted in 2014 and replaced during the 2015 and ’16 seasons he opened as the place-kicker, third-year sophomore Cole Hedlund and walk-on Blake Mazza contest to kick field goals going into the season opener.
Either Connor Limpert, last year’s kickoff man, or Mazza will kick off.