"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Hype is the sort of thing that can bedevil a player and burden a program. Arkansas only went 7-6 last year, but the improvement was so astounding from 2013 to 2014 that it couldn't escape the public's attention. Consecutive home shutouts of LSU and Ole Miss did wonders for the overall morale around the team, and vindicated Bret Bielema's steadfastness in program construction. Winning a little now is never as important as winning a lot later.
That the philosophy has gained a foothold is exceedingly clear in the rash of preseason magazines that sit around in grocery stores and such. Tight end Hunter Henry is on the John Mackey Award Watch List and is an Athlon preseason All-American. Offensive anchors Sebastian Tretola and Denver Kirkland both made the Outland Trophy Watch List and similarly garnered preseason All-America and All-SEC nods. The backfield duo of Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, naturally, finds haven on the Maxwell Award list, and is generally and fairly regarded as the most lethal running back tandem nationwide.
There isn't much risk associated with these nods. All of these offensive stalwarts were leaned upon heavily in the Jim Chaney offense, which was erratic and inexcusably safe at the wrong moments. The Dan Enos offense, which is pitched to be more dynamic and yet fundamentally stable as well, probably does nothing but likely enhance everyone's production, to say nothing of what it will do for Brandon Allen's crescendo toward respected senior quarterback.
All of this is, of course, on one side of the ball. Arkansas flourished so much defensively last year that Robb Smith, then-unknown coordinator by way of Rutgers, became arguably the most beloved guy in the state for a good two or three months. That the unit lost its figureheads — Darius Philon, Trey Flowers and Martrell Spaight — and is still being viewed as a returning asset overall is credit enough to how it has evolved. For those departures, it's evident that the confidence being invested in successors like Deatrich Wise, JaMichael Winston, Taiwan Johnson and Brooks Ellis is well rooted. None of those guys currently has assumed much long-view attention, but that's frankly inconsequential.
There are those who wave off whatever alleged prestige might come along with placement on one of these honorary ledgers, but a watch list isn't totally valueless. An omission can sting someone like, for instance, Dan Skipper. He's universally liked here for two years of solid work up front, but his history of ill-timed penalties may have played a role in his omission from offensive line consideration. The 6-foot-10 junior stands out physically, as always; will he look at a snub as a means of mental motivation, too? Keon Hatcher may or may not have made his way onto the Biletnikoff list by the time this column is released — the preseason contenders for the best wide receiver award will be announced on July 15 — but there's ample spin either way.
Hatcher was a nonentity as a redshirt freshman in the lost year of John L. Smith, and had equal parts triumph and trouble as a sophomore with Allen running a much more makeshift offense than the one that hummed along last fall. The senior from Owasso, Okla., seemed to find his niche in 2014, though, catching 43 passes, including six touchdowns, and he emerged as a change-of-pace runner and heady downfield blocker as well. Is he one of the premier receivers in the country? Conventional wisdom still says no, but he looks like a great prospect at this point of his career, which is remarkable given his legacy as one of the last Bobby Petrino recruits and one of the few at the position who wanted to still ply his trade after Bielema took over (remember Mekale McKay, anyone?).
All told, when a program's been left in ruin by prior coaching regimes, the newfound attention is nice. Bielema can and will give it all the appropriate treatment. It may be symbolic stuff in July, but by the time October and November roll in, if all the various list inclusions are living up to the billing and the omissions are still fueled by their snubs, then take the entirety of the Hogs off whatever "watch list" you've put them on for 2015, for the actual product is making one more substantive, sizable leap forward.
Congratulations Tara, beautifully written!