"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
If you lazed around the house last Saturday, like I did, you might've tuned into the SEC Network at some point to watch an all-day Razorback "takeover" of the network. In so doing, you likely saw the centerpiece games of the Hogs' 2015 rebirth on the gridiron, the indisputably classic 53-52 overtime takedown of Ole Miss and the following week's 31-14 dismantling of LSU.
These games get the proverbial juices flowing. You can't wait for the 2016 season to commence after you watch Alex Collins doing a gazelle's sprint away from LSU defenders for the departed junior tailback's longest run of a terrific campaign. You see Brandon Allen slinging darts all over Ole Miss' baffled pass defense to the tune of a then-school record six touchdown passes and get extremely comfy with the idea of this going down all over again throughout the fall. You watch Hunter Henry cradle big catches and Sebastian Tretola pancake highly touted defensive linemen and think, "Damn, I can't WAIT to see all this again."
Then you pinch yourself and realize this was (a) the best act of a two-act dichotomy that started poorly and ended well, and (b) those major aforesaid players have migrated to the pros. But don't get duped by either the wildly disparate tale of Arkansas's 2015 season or the loss of talent.
This may be the strongest returning receiving corps that the Razorbacks have fielded in the post-Petrino days. Keon Hatcher and Cody Hollister both should be ready to go after foot injuries took them out of the Toledo game and left at least Hatcher sidelined the rest of the year. Drew Morgan capitalized on their absences to become the SEC's most unheralded wideout last fall, Dominique Reed was lethal once he got untracked with a big touchdown catch against Tennessee, and the exciting Jared Cornelius arguably made the biggest impact on the offense last fall once he came back from a gruesome arm injury against Texas Tech.
Henry's departure only means that Jeremy Sprinkle will finally get a chance to be the preferred option at tight end. On the offensive line, for all that Tretola and regrettably early entry Denver Kirkland meant, the nucleus of Dan Skipper — who quietly was a stalwart last year after being dogged by bad penalties his first two seasons — and Frank Ragnow remains entrenched. And the running game behind them will still be solid in Collins' absence, because Kody Walker has trimmed down, Rawleigh Williams has recuperated, and Devwah Whaley provides that top-tier talent that will push those returnees.
This embarrassment of riches means that Austin Allen's ascendancy into the role his brother occupied the past three years will either be a much less daunting obstacle than anything Brandon faced, or he'll falter inexcusably and let one of the signal-callers behind him take the reins. All signs point to the younger Allen being a potential star: It's oft-forgotten in the moments of panic, but he left Fayetteville High School more universally regarded for his arm strength and on-field moxie. His elder brother's calmness finally became a precious asset last year when times toughened; this year, with expectations being hard to pinpoint given the combination of a favorable home schedule and these offensive personnel losses, Austin's bravado may pay dividends. He's gotten the benefit of some reasonably productive game reps the last two years as well.
Where you should be more reassured is watching the defense in those two signature games. Yes, the Hogs yielded often to the Rebels, but there's a team that's always going to score with that pacing and production. Instead, notice how that game paved the way for Deatrich Wise Jr. to assert himself over the final half of the season and then mature into the team's top defensive lineman for 2016. See how Dre Greenlaw, though raw and untested, put himself in the midst of every play of consequence with his ball-hawking ability and lateral speed. And pay close attention to guys like Tevin Beanum, Bijhon Jackson, Jared Collins and Brooks Ellis: Even when overmatched at times, the effort was always there, and the productivity only promises to increase.
In fact, this fall, Robb Smith has something closer to what he had two years ago when he debuted quite well, only to fall out of favor slightly as teams like Texas Tech and Auburn pushed the Hogs around at times as the season came into bloom. There's leadership up front in the same way that Trey Flowers contributed in 2014, as well as some steadiness to the back end with Ellis trying to rebound from an off year and Greenlaw and a cadre of well-touted freshmen hoping to stabilize the longstanding weakness at linebacker. The secondary doesn't overwhelm at first glance, but the experience gained by Santos Ramirez, Kevin Richardson, and D.J. Dean last fall won't be for naught. All got exposed from time to time in 2015, but learned from it, as evidenced by Richardson shaking off some bad plays against Mississippi State to tally a critical interception in that game, and Dean snaring a pick in the LSU end zone after he perfectly played a fourth-quarter back-shoulder throw.
The emphasis this fall for Bret Bielema and the staff is clearly on starting strong, because the schedule necessitates it. Louisiana Tech and TCU are as stiff a 1-2 opening tandem as the Hogs have drawn in a while, and therefore, the Razorbacks cannot keep their left feet gingerly near the brakes once the season starts. We'll get into the entire schedule in subsequent weeks with our month-long season preview throughout August, but suffice to say, the recruiting improvements have been substantive enough to warrant the stepped-up scheduling and the no-excuses mentality that the staff seems to embody.