When the last seconds of Arkansas’s exceedingly dominant Texas Bowl victory over the Texas Longhorns ticked away just before 2014 went into the annals, the countdown to an otherwise undistinguished month commenced. No fan base has ever felt better about a six-loss squad that was about to lose three of its defensive anchors to the NFL Draft. The signs that the Razorbacks were reborn were abundant, strong and lasting.
As we’ve done here in the past, we will break down the schedule over three ensuing columns. But this week, we ask five big questions about whether Arkansas genuinely is prepared to assert itself in the always-rigorous SEC West, some that hopefully haven’t been asked:
1. Does Taiwan Johnson take flight? Last fall, Darius Philon developed so much that he made an ill-advised leap to the pros. Johnson’s got that kind of playmaking ability on the defensive line, and he’s already been visible in that capacity. The problem now is that the opposing focus that may have been devoted to protecting quarterbacks from Trey Flowers’ speed rush is probably more geared toward softening the center of Arkansas’s imposing front with a power run game. We saw Missouri patiently stay with it until it paid dividends in a comeback win to cap the regular season, and it was also the central theme of the Hogs’ undisputed worst loss last year, the drubbing by Georgia in Little Rock.
Johnson can be good for several fumbles forced and recovered, a few sacks, and several lost-yardage drive-killers if he builds on the reputation he well earned from mid-October forward. Among all of the talented contributors set to become All-SEC types this fall on the defensive side, he may have the highest ceiling.
2. Can Dan Enos’ play design make the team more potent without resulting in more mistakes? There’s no question that the Hogs earned their stripes last season by improving their once-miserable turnover ratio. But Jim Chaney had such curious play calls at such inopportune junctions that those strides ended up somewhat negligible in the end.
Enter Enos, taking a step down from the head coaching ranks at Central Michigan to bring both stability and a sense of flair to an offense perceived as stodgy and grinding. Brandon Allen’s growth last year was evident in his lack of errors, but would the Hogs give up a few more picks here and there in exchange for substantially more scores? No question. It wouldn’t be upsetting to see the senior throw double-digit interceptions if they weren’t situationally crippling, and if he chucked 25-plus touchdowns. The belief is that the weapons, protection and maturity are all there for that to occur, but Enos cannot ask Allen to be too much, too quick.
3. Will Kody Walker shine in what seems like his 15th junior year? Walker came onto campus blocked by Roland Sales and Gary Anderson … I kid, of course. But the star-crossed career of this young man and his unbelievable commitment in the face of all the injuries and various challenges brings him back for what will be the fifth of a six-year stint in Fayetteville. Granted, he’s not going to get the touches that Alex Collins or Jonathan Williams command, but his piece in this offense is immensely vital.
One, Walker catches the ball relatively well, certainly better than Collins, and he’s still a physical back despite a couple of harrowing, career-threatening collisions his first two years. Two, Korliss Marshall’s inability to stay clear of the doghouse means that the third back is Walker, no ifs or buts, and he’s got so much size and open-field skill that he cannot be overlooked. But third and perhaps most importantly, he’s the third back in a system overseen by Bret Bielema, who has arguably gotten more literal mileage out of the No. 3 running back than any other coach in the country the past decade. If Walker is good for 20 to 25 catches and about 100 carries as a change-of-pace guy, he softens the inevitable blow of losing Williams and perhaps Collins come April.
4. Are the special teams taking a step forward? Adam McFain solved an apparent placekicking crisis last fall, and though Aussie punter Sam Irwin-Hill took his big leg and fake-punt dramatics elsewhere, Blake Johnson comes in with excellent credentials as a likely replacement. The return game will miss Marshall’s burst but maybe improve by way of that subtraction due to the week-on, week-off mystery that shrouded his status once he and Bielema started their eventually irreparable head-butting.
Jared Cornelius looks like a potential gem in the return game with his build and his discipline. He did a lot to impress late last fall, and if he isn’t Joe Adams, it’s no sin whatsoever. The big play can remain the domain of the tailbacks and tight ends, so long as they get the chance to take the field after Cornelius, Keon Hatcher and other returners protect the ball and generate positive yards.
5. Does Arkansas’s quiet offseason signal that it has perhaps overtaken LSU for the short term? The Hogs throttled the Tigers on the field last year, which was overdue and beautiful even in a sloshy, chilly game in mid-November, but it may have signaled something else.
Once again, LSU had an offseason fraught with negative headlines, namely an incident involving onetime starting quarterback Anthony Jennings. Les Miles had another decent recruiting class in 2014, but it could also be perceived as one of his least potent since he arrived in Baton Rouge. Last year, Pearls correctly predicted the Hog uprising against the Tigers in Fayetteville and noted it would be the first five-loss LSU team in six seasons, and lo and behold, that prognostication was accurate. The sheen is missing and even with Leonard Fournette coming back, how functional will this offense be with several gaping holes in it? If the Hogs can win in Death Valley, notching back-to-back triumphs against their rival for the first time since 2007-08, then that alone could cause enough disenchantment down South to put Miles’ job status in the crosshairs come December.