FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas defensive end Chris Smith and center Travis Swanson have earned plenty of notoriety leading up to the 2013 season, landing on preseason All-Southeastern Conference teams and watch lists for national awards.
Quarterback Brandon Allen has received his share of publicity, too, stepping into the spotlight after two years behind current Oakland Raiders quarterback Tyler Wilson. The same can be said for other key players like running back Jonathan Williams, safety Rohan Gaines, defensive tackle Byran Jones, receiver Javontee Herndon and defensive end Trey Flowers. It’s clear each one is vital to coach Bret Bielema’s first Arkansas team.
But it’s also no secret Arkansas’ success will depend on much more than the performance of just those “star” players this season. The new-look Razorbacks need production from plenty of others who aren’t exactly in the spotlight. It includes several players who enter preseason practice — which begins today — in first-team roles.
So who fits the category? Here are five under-the-radar players who will be key to Arkansas’ success when preseason practice begins today:
OT Grady Ollison - Sophomore - 6-5, 290
• Why we’re watching: Bielema has mentioned one player every time he is asked about the offseason conditioning program: Ollison. The Malvern native is listed at 290 in the 2013 media guide, but has reportedly joined the 300-pound club this summer thanks to his work with strength coach Ben Herbert. Coaches have raved about the gain, too. It’s great news for an offensive line needing Ollison to develop as a strong right tackle.
• What we expect: Remember Ollison came to Arkansas as a defensive lineman, but moved to offensive tackle last preseason and even lined up at fullback because of depth issues. Now, the new staff wants Ollison to show he has the size, skills and intelligence to become a starting tackle in the SEC. It will take time, of course, for a player lacking experience. But Ollison should be able to hold off competitors for the job this month.
LB Daunte Carr - Junior - 6-3, 225
• Why we’re watching: Raise your hand if you predicted Carr would be the first-team middle linebacker when spring practice began last April. Arkansas wiped the slate clean at linebacker and Carr emerged as the surprise man in the middle when the depth chart was released. But linebackers coach Randy Shannon has made no promise Carr will remain there throughout camp, saying every position is wide open when practice begins.
• What we expect: Who knows? Carr’s only significant game day experience has come on special teams, leaving plenty of questions about whether he can handle the responsibility at middle linebacker. The Razorbacks sorely need a steady middle linebacker who can successfully roam from sideline to sideline. Carr will get a chance to prove he’s worthy as Arkansas tries to strengthen the middle of its defense.
CB Jared Collins — Freshman - 6-0, 175
• Why we’re watching: Arkansas was horrible in pass defense last season, allowing big plays through the air all season. Retooling the group was a big priority for the new staff in the spring and Collins became part of that equation after redshirting in 2012. In fact, his rise to the first-team defense over Will Hines was one of the spring’s big surprises. Now, the Razorbacks want to see how much Collins has grown in the offseason.
• What we expect: Collins impressed in a number of ways during his first year at Arkansas. The Tulsa native may have redshirted in 2012, but proved he could succeed in the classroom by earning a 4.0 grade point average. He then impressed in the spring, climbing to the top of the depth chart. There’s no reason to believe it won’t continue in camp as the redshirt freshman takes aim at a starting job in the secondary.
WR Demetrius Wilson - Senior – 6-3, 185
• Why we’re watching: Arkansas needs a go-to receiver and while Herndon is the front-runner, the junior college transfer is certainly a candidate as he prepares for his second season with the program. Wilson helped the offense in a minor role last season, catching 9 passes for 117 yards and a touchdown. But Arkansas likes Wilson’s skill set and position coach Michael Smith believes he showed promise in spring practice.
• What we expect: Wilson was on this list last preseason, but got off to a slow start as he made the adjustment to Division I football. He did show progress late in the year and it seemed to carry over to spring practice. Wilson looked and acted like a much more confident receiver and can prove it now. Arkansas may not throw the ball 50 times a game, but Wilson’s development may make the Razorbacks dangerous through the air.
TE Mitchell Loewen - Sophomore - 6-4, 271
• Why we’re watching: The former walk-on has bounced between positions through his career (linebacker, defensive end, fullback), but appears to have found a home at tight end. Arkansas listed him as a starter on its post-spring depth chart (ahead of Austin Tate) even though he missed the bulk of the spring with an injury. He was awarded a scholarship, too. All are signs Arkansas is convinced of the Hawaiian’s talents.
• What we expect: Loewen isn’t the D.J. Williams/Chris Gragg breed of tight end. But, then again, this isn’t the same Arkansas offense. The sophomore will be graded more on his run blocking as Arkansas aims to win games at the line of scrimmage. He’ll have plenty of competition for playing time with Tate, Hunter Henry, Alex Voelzke and Jeremy Sprinkle, but the Razorbacks feel Loewen’s physicality fits well with their offensive plans.
— Robbie Neiswanger • Arkansas News Bureau