A couple of weeks ago, I hinted that the time to prognosticate about Arkansas’s 2014 football season was inescapably here, and that such forecasting would be a comprehensive examination over the remainder of summer. With all the major publications expecting another months-long round of implosions, you’d think the die has been cast for the Hogs to be flailing away in the outhouse once more. You’d think I’m not particularly enthused about even drafting this, given that the subject matter seems about as effusive and bright as Sylvia Plath’s memoirs.
Ain’t the case. I got a little room for unfettered, unapologetic and perhaps illogical optimism.
Arkansas went 0-8 in SEC play last year and got one more nasty 52-0 beatdown from Alabama in the course of that. The Hogs also mustered some heart, too, and that got overlooked amid the losing.
Nine losses, yes, but eight of those came at the hands of bowl-bound teams. The last month of the year, the Hogs improved on both sides of the ball, averaging 21 points per game on offense and surrendering 31 per outing. They taxed national runner-up Auburn, competed gamely on the road against Ole Miss and LSU, and let a win against Mississippi State slip away in Little Rock. Maybe it was a bunch of moral wins, but it was something to be comparatively stoked about after three October losses to Florida, South Carolina and Alabama netted all of 17 total points against 134 surrendered.
Looking in reverse isn’t particularly enjoyable but it gives insight into deficiencies that the coaching staff seems to have taken to heart. Brandon Allen was injury-prone and sloppy throwing the ball, but it was a soft receiving crew and mediocre protection that often let him down. There have been some efforts to shore that up, and perhaps the least publicized but most encouraging news is that big-bodied wideout Demitrius Wilson is back after tearing an ACL last summer. With Keon Hatcher developing some swagger in the final few weeks of his sophomore campaign, it at least gives the Razorback perimeter size and experience, flaws notwithstanding.
Suddenly, the defensive side of the ball has some anchors, too, which should help the pass rush and run stoppage. Darius Philon was high-impact at times last season, and seemed to strengthen as the laborious campaign wound down. New coordinator Robb Smith needs him to be a cog alongside senior defensive end Trey Flowers and the raw but gifted Deatrich Wise, and it will stabilize a line that had great potential last fall but lost a lot of its spirit when tackle Robert Thomas went down for good with a broken leg in October.
The objective this fall is to simply grind. The paucity of passing game talent was amplified by mistakes last fall, so Jim Chaney cannot be so emboldened this year. In other words, if you hate conservative offense, don’t watch us much this fall. There is no reason for a team like Arkansas, so bereft of depth and skill position speed, to dare lengthen games in which they’re already fundamentally overmatched.
Where the defense’s growth can be best measured is in the back end, of course, and the consensus is that these areas still suffer. Injuries never help, and Will Hines got roughly half of his promising sophomore stanza yanked away cruelly with a broken arm against Florida. The ball-hawking corner may have demonstrated his best asset when he returned from the alleged season-ender to log a few snaps in the meaningless finale against LSU. That anyone could shake off ailments to find the stomach to try to fend off a winless conference season was a facet of that game that was lost in all the postgame panic.
Brooks Ellis grew into the middle linebacker role as well, and even if it’s hard to conceive of a scenario where the Hogs are defensively stout, consider the impact that the Korliss Marshall/Alex Collins/Jonathan Williams triumvirate can have on the other side. Those three produced over 2,000 aggregate rushing yards last fall, but did it with only 357 combined totes. This fall, the emphasis will be placed on harder effort between the tackles and that can only come from more workload. Bret Bielema was an advocate for slowed offenses for a reason — he watched his own undermanned defense get victimized by it time and time again.
These are some of the bright spots. We needn’t belabor the grim truths just yet. Keep smiling for a while.