Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
Our three-part game-by-game prediction series now behind us, Pearls moves into a breakdown of what the Arkansas football team's identity will presumably be in all facets of the game for 2016. Space and time constraints prohibit this from being the sort of long-winded fluff you'll find on magazine racks and what-not, but we'll try to encapsulate the key issues facing the team now so you can look back later and guffaw openly at how badly off-target this piece was.
Offense: The first year of the Dan Enos experiment was an unqualified success, even if the Hogs struggled to put up points in crippling losses to Toledo and Texas Tech early in the year. Brandon Allen's deliberate maturation hit light speed over the final six weeks, Alex Collins ran off into the sunset with the best of his three 1,000-yard seasons, and Hunter Henry powered his way to the Mackey Award as the nation's best tight-end.
They're all gone, obviously, and yet the general feeling is that the Hogs' rebuilt offensive line and overhauled backfield can't possibly fail because of two reasons: The Enos offense is built on being quick off the snap and unpredictable in form, and the Hogs' returning slew of pass-catchers may be the strongest one ever in Fayetteville (you'll recall that when Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs returned as seniors in 2011, Childs was coming off a major patella tear and D.J. Williams had left a void at tight end). Whether Austin Allen can replicate the ball-security numbers his older brother had over 2014-15 (50 touchdown passes against only 13 picks) could be immaterial if he can simply be durable and smart with the football when it matters most. That's where senior tight end Jeremy Sprinkle, who actually outpaced Henry with six touchdown grabs last fall, and the tough-as-nails slot receiver Drew Morgan will help most. With Keon Hatcher and Cody Hollister returning from foot injuries and looking strong, and with products like Jamario Bell and Cheyenne O'Grady on the rise, there shouldn't be a shortage of targets for Allen to rely upon. Kody Walker and Rawleigh Williams provide toughness at tailback; true freshmen Devwah Whaley and T.J. Hammonds look the part as electric breakaway guys already. With proven commodities like Dominique Reed able to stretch the field, it's up to Frank Ragnow and Dan Skipper to anchor the line and give Allen time to locate the deep threat.
Defense: Robb Smith's unit was not nearly as intimidating in its second iteration as its first. The absences of lineman Darius Philon and Trey Flowers were substantially felt throughout the season because the Hogs lacked consistency pressuring the quarterback, and that exposed tackling and speed deficiencies on the back side. But Dre Greenlaw was an impact player from the outset, and comes back as a leaner and even more confident sophomore ready to guide a group of touted linebackers along with senior Brooks Ellis. That unit's been underwhelming for a while, but the expectation now is that upstarts like De'jon Harris, Alexy Jean-Baptiste and the reinstated and rejuvenated Randy Ramsey will push for time on the field.
The line may be the best it has been under Bret Bielema, with Deatrich Wise, Tevin Beanum and Jeremiah Ledbetter bringing back 60 percent of the team's 2015 sack total. Freshman McTelvin Agim should be a bona fide homegrown star, and newcomer Briston Guidry could even end up being the team's best force against the run.
The glut of talent there isn't quite the same in the secondary, but the defensive backs who are returning have all been competent, if understated. Henri Toliver has had big moments the past two seasons, and D.J. Dean and Jared Collins have shown resiliency enough to bounce back from getting torched to make some plays. What may loom largest here is the development of Santos Ramirez and Josh Liddell, both of whom are athletic and fierce enough to create disruption in center field for quarterbacks who might get too frisky. It's often said that it's a bad sign when your leading tacklers are defensive backs, but if this tandem can instead lead the team in pass breakups and fumbles forced, then the results should be encouraging.
Special Teams: Toby Baker was unexpectedly solid punting the ball last fall, and comes back as a senior looking like a Ray Guy Award candidate: He had no punts blocked last fall, permitted few returns of any consequence, and landed more than half of his boots inside the 20. Conversely, Cole Hedlund had a memorably shaky go-around as the placekicker, and Adam McFain, who was pretty good for a few games in 2014 after John Henson faltered, could pressure him if Hedlund's first few boots are unsteady.
The return game is buoyed by the electric Jared Cornelius on punts, supported capably by Dean, both of whom had identical stats last year (seven returns for 93 yards each), but there's a dearth of proven kick return talent. Reed handled that well for a bit and could do so again, but do not be shocked if Hammonds or Whaley get looks here as well.