LITTLE ROCK — Like the budget deficit in Washington, the talent deficit in Fayetteville is going to take some time to solve.
One is complex, involving unfathomable amounts of money and compromise. The other is both direct and difficult; sign two dozen quality football players in February and two dozen more a year later.
At the Capitol, politicians will share the credit for a success and point fingers if things go south. At Arkansas, the man calling the shots will reap the rewards or his employment will be short-lived.
Taboo among coaches, blaming the previous administration is appropriate when it comes to the Razorbacks’ experience gap at quarterback. Instead of playing redshirt freshman Brandon Allen much of the fourth quarter in three blowout losses on the road, the coaches repaid a debt to senior quarterback Tyler Wilson by allowing him to keep chunking. Arkansas threw 459 passes this year, 401 by Wilson.
John L. Smith’s predecessor, Bobby Petrino, was also prone to leave his starting quarterback in a game that was out of hand, but Wilson benefitted from playing the second half against Auburn in 2010 after Ryan Mallett was injured. Allen could have learned in College Station, Columbia, and Starkville.
Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell is a prime example of the value of playing time. A junior, he played in nine games in 2010 and eight more last year. This year, he was 21-4 on TDS vs. interceptions through the first 11 games and the Bulldogs were 8-3.
Looking ahead at Arkansas, here’s the rub — if the 2013 quarterback could hand the ball to a proven running back 20-25 times or know that some receivers would save an off-target pass or that the offensive line would protect him, he would have an easier time learning on the job. Instead, the 2012 offense was as top-heavy with a senior at wide receiver as it was at quarterback and the situation at running back is up in the air.
Wide receivers caught 180 passes this year and Cobi Hamilton had exactly half, typified by the LSU game when he grabbed 10 and five other receivers equalled his total. Also gone is tight end Chris Gragg, the second leading receiver on the team although he only played in five games.
At running back, Knile Davis is a wild card. Davis, who flirted with the NFL draft a year ago, has another year of eligibility. Until Friday, his status seemed inconsequential, but Davis looked like the 2010 running back on occasion against LSU. He could play another year in an attempt to shoot down the theory that he is injury prone or pass on his fifth year and hope to sell himself at the NFL combines. Davis and senior Dennis Johnson had almost all the meaningful carries this year.
Freshman Jonathan Williams can catch the ball out of the backfield, but who knows if he can handle 18-20 carries per game.
Against LSU, Arkansas started three underclassmen in the offensive line and the one sack of Wilson and 103 yards rushing says the unit was competent against a superb defense. Contrarians will note that Wilson, who was minus 31 yards for the season, was the leading rusher with 38 yards.
In what would be an about-face at Arkansas, the 2013 team may be anchored in defense since the unit that started against LSU included four freshmen, two sophomores, and two juniors. However, identifying playmakers on defense is more visual than anything and the jury is out because of the Darrell Royal assessment that went something like, “If a dog is going to bite you, he’ll bite you as a pup.”
Also, the most recent impression is skewed by LSU’s bland running game and Zach Mettenberger’s hit-or-miss passing. LSU never tested Arkansas’ freshmen linebackers with misdirection and the Tigers made only 89 yards on 38 rushing attempts.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.